Susan Mayne, Ph.D., joined the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in January 2015 as the new director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN). She came to the FDA from Yale University, where she was the C.-E.A. Winslow Professor and Chair of the Department of Chronic Disease Epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, and Associate Director of Yale Cancer Center.
She talks about her first year as CFSAN director and what she sees for the future.
What has your first year as director of CFSAN been like?
I’ve been energized by my first year here. I love to learn, and I certainly have been soaking up a lot of information, and I know there is so much more I need to absorb. As an academician and scientist, it has been gratifying for me to see numerous applications of regulatory science—that is, to see how the findings of scientific research, much of it done within CFSAN, are being put into action to improve the safety of food, dietary supplements, and cosmetics.
I’m impressed by the incredible amount of work this center does day in and day out to meet our public health and statutory obligations. There is a truly remarkable depth and breadth of expertise in CFSAN/FDA; for every issue that I have encountered, there are experts within CFSAN/FDA who thoroughly know the issue and the underlying data. I wish others had the opportunity to spend a day in my shoes, seeing how different disciplines work together to integrate science, policy and the law to address public health concerns.
What has been your biggest challenge?
My biggest challenge has been having time to analyze and understand the processes we follow to get the work done, while having to get the work done at the same time! I’ve heard Deputy Commissioner Mike Taylor describe it as tuning up a race car as it’s going around the track. The pace is thrilling but also challenging at the same time.
What have you learned that has surprised you?
I have gained a new appreciation for how nutrition and food safety are so closely intertwined. I was aware, following the spinach-linked E coli. outbreak back in 2006, that an outbreak could have long-term effects on the consumption of a highly nutritious food. Now that I’m here, it’s even more clear to me that government can’t on one hand be encouraging the consumption of certain foods through dietary guidelines without also taking all steps possible to make sure those foods are safe. For example, the dietary guidelines tell us to eat more produce, and I have seen all the hard work that went into the produce safety rule under the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Our success in making food safer has a major impact not just on reducing acute foodborne illnesses and their long-term health effects, but also in reducing chronic diseases linked to poor food consumption patterns.
I’m also keenly aware of our need to adapt to changing food production practices, consumer preferences, and novel foods entering the market, often produced using cutting edge technologies. We have to evolve as the world around us evolves. That does not happen overnight, because we also need to take time to get things right and in many cases, ensure that we have an opportunity for public feedback.
What are the most significant things that have happened during your first year?
Last year was unquestionably of enormous impact, with initiatives such as publishing five major rules to implement FSMA, the final determination that partially hydrogenated oils are no longer Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS), and our proposed rules on Nutrition Facts labeling. We all know that these initiatives take years of hard work and that the bulk of the work was well underway before I arrived. But I feel privileged to be here at this historic time to help get them over the finish line and celebrate with everyone who has put so much time and effort into these initiatives.
And while these are the accomplishments that understandably grab headlines, I think we’ve made a lot of progress in making CFSAN stronger as an organization. We’ve hired a number of new leaders and staff who reflect the diversity of perspectives we need for good planning and decision making. And we have moved some of the outstanding leaders and staff already here into key positions. This isn’t about change for change’s sake. It’s about change as a way to do things better that reflect public health priorities. I’ve always believed that when you bring people together who have different backgrounds and perspectives, you are more likely to be successful.
What changes do you see moving forward?
I see so many opportunities moving forward to make the center even stronger than it is now.
For example, reviewing and updating the processes we follow is essential to making sure we are doing things consistently and efficiently. I think both are essential to good government.
I know there is an opportunity for CFSAN to continue to innovate. Just because we’ve been doing things one way doesn’t mean we need to continue. We face many legal and resource constraints, but we need to not allow that to hold us up from doing things we can change.
And we have an opportunity to solve problems by working closely with our diverse set of stakeholders in a shared understanding of the science, goals and how to achieve them. FDA has had a lot of success using strategic alignment on FSMA, because we all want safe food. We need to move forward in a similar way with nutrition and chemical safety issues. Working together as effectively as possible is one of my key goals.
I also see more opportunity to focus our science for public health impact. Our goal in conducting research is not just to be doing great science and publishing our work—it is to be disseminating the research findings to make the food supply healthier and safer. I see FDA, our government partners, industry and academic researchers working more closely together to solve scientific challenges. Mechanisms already exist for such collaboration—we just need to do better.
I’m also excited about the opportunity to help the industry evolve to give consumers the foods they want. Many consumers today are asking for healthier food options, and transparency and clarity in labeling. We have a role to play here. We applaud industries who are reformulating their products to be healthier, but this isn’t about reformulating the food supply so that only healthy foods are available. We know that consumers want and deserve choice. Clarity in labeling and consumer education are key to helping consumers make informed choices.
Are you optimistic about the road ahead?
Absolutely. My first year has shown me that we are on a solid footing and ready to meet the challenges ahead. We have a lot of work to do, and I will continue to work with the team at CFSAN, our stakeholders and our government partners to work as effectively as possible to meet our obligations.
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