CDFA Secretary Karen Ross is pressing the Food and Drug Administration for assurance that it views states as co-regulators in implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and the agency's leadership seems responsive.

Speaking at the monthly meeting of the State Food and Agriculture Board on Tuesday, Ross described how she posed that question to FDA Commissioner Robert Califf at the annual meeting for the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) last week. Ross has been chairing NASDA’s Food Safety and Nutrition Committee for three years and plays a leading role in the association’s FSMA working group, which involved a full-day meeting last Wednesday with FDA leadership.

“I am very confident—based on all the leadership meetings that I had and a number of one-on-one conversations—that the commitment is there,” said Ross. “After eight years, we’ve learned a lot. What else do we need to do to take a deep dive into the program and how it’s working with our cooperative agreements?”

She elaborated on funding cuts made to California’s proposals on cooperative agreements that left no money for upgrading a FSMA database. Investing in this, she claimed, would allow CDFA to pull together information that is currently siloed and help to better inform the department’s decisions. Califf, who served a stint at Google’s parent company, mocked California for housing Silicon Valley but not investing in its own IT support.

“There's information that you're collecting, but if it's not automated, it's very hard to look at mutually," Califf noted during a zoom interview with Ross during the NASDA meeting. "Cloud computing was made to enable people to look at common data and information under a set of rules that allow you to segment the part that needs to stay in one place."

He also told NASDA members that his agency can’t give the American public what it needs for public health without a really strong relationship with their members and staff at the state level. 

Underscoring the “magnitude of the task ahead of us,” Califf warned the group that,  “If we don't start doing things very differently, we're not going to be in very good shape because of climate change that's occurring…..creating enormous stresses at the local level. We're going to have a lot of starving people around the world. 

“We’ll have issues in the U.S. - maybe not the same level of starvation - if we don't figure out how not only to keep food safe from bacterial and other outbreaks but also radically improve the nutritional status and resilience of what we are producing agriculturally."

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Ross noted that the vast majority of food safety inspections, including audits, are carried out at the state level.

“We are the boots on the ground,” she said. “We just have to be honest. We have to be forthcoming in our findings and continue to collaborate and identify priorities for how we do this.”

Ross hoped to eventually add data from grower audits into the database to find food safety problems more quickly.

Also at the NASDA conference, Califf shared with Ross positive news on feed supplements for reducing methane emissions from enteric fermentation in cows. Products are already in the pipeline for FDA approval.

Califf said if it can be registered as a feed additive, it goes through a food registration process, which takes about two years, while products registered as drugs can take as long as a decade for approval.

Ross appreciated that answer, noting that this topic is really important for California, with the Newsom administration signing onto a global methane reduction pledge following the 2021 United Nations Climate Conference known as COP26.

Several European countries have already approved additives and dairy farmers in California are fielding offers for such products that claim to lead to methane reductions, according to Ross. Those claims, however, cannot be validated because the FDA has yet to register the products.

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