Frank Yiannas, FDA's deputy commissioner for food policy and response and one of the nation's top food safety officials, has announced plans to step down from the agency and is suggesting a shake-up in the structure of federal food safety personnel should be considered.
In a letter submitted Wednesday for FDA Commissioner Robert Califf, Yiannas said the FDA would benefit from “a more integrated operating structure and a fully empowered and experienced Deputy Commissioner for Foods.” Yiannas suggested that position could have jurisdiction over FDA's human and animal foods areas, including protecting the American public from foodborne illness.
FDA’s foods program has come under scrutiny over the last year following the 2022 infant formula crisis and a December report from the Reagan-Udall Foundation. The foundation's assessment was highly critical of the agency and outlined deep leadership and organizational roadblocks in allowing the agency to properly oversee food safety.
Yiannas first joined FDA in 2018 as an appointee of the Trump administration. He told Califf in his letter that based on his experience with the agency during that time, he — along with stakeholders and bipartisan congressional leaders — all “firmly believe” the deputy commissioner for foods position is needed at the FDA.
He added the agency “would operate more effectively and be better able to protect the American public from foodborne illness.” Whoever is appointed to the position could “more easily make the changes that are needed to transform FDA’s food program for the 21st Century,” he added.
Yiannas said he was considering departing the agency in February 2022 — a thought he noted sharing in a conversation with Califf. Concerns about the decentralized structure of the foods program that you and I both inherited significantly impaired FDA’s ability to operate as an integrated food team and protect the public,” Yiannas noted. He opted to stay in his position upon learning about “infant formula incidents” in that same month that would eventually lead to a nationwide supply crisis and questions about the agency's governance of the nation's food safety.
“I postponed this decision and dedicated myself and my staff to doing all we could to help tackle the crisis,” he said. “I believe the time is right for me to leave and vacate this position.”
Chief among his responsibilities when Yiannas first joined FDA was the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act, which was signed into law in 2011. That implementation was lagging and led to several lawsuits filed against FDA, but Yiannas said he was pleased with the “strategic progress” on FSMA’s final Food Traceability Rule and a new, proposed Agricultural Water Standards.
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“While the FSMA-projected reductions in foodborne illnesses have yet to be realized a decade later, these two rules, once fully implemented, will be game-changers in allowing those reductions to become a reality,” he said.
The letter also urged Califf to consider transferring the staff comprising the Office of Food Policy and Response (OFPR) to a new office of the deputy commissioner for foods.
A spokesperson for FDA confirmed the resignation, which is effective February 24.
“Yiannas has served as a valued member of the agency’s leadership team, spearheading important initiatives including the New Era of Smarter Food Safety to help create a safer and more digital, traceable food system for our country,” the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson added FDA remains committed to providing an update expected on Jan. 31 regarding steps on how to strengthen the Human Foods Program and additional updates to the organizational structure, including how the responsibilities of the deputy commissioner for food policy and response position will be handled moving forward, by the end of February.
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