- Testimony of
Robert M. Califf, M.D., MACC
Commissioner of Food and Drugs - Food and Drug Administration
(Remarks as prepared for delivery)
Chair Baldwin, Ranking Member Hoeven, and members of the Committee. Thank you for inviting us to testify about food safety and the Food and Drug Administration’s Foods Program.
I want to assure you that the safety of our nation’s food supply is one of my absolute top priorities. Although foodborne outbreaks continue to occur, all experts with whom I have consulted agree that America’s food supply has never been safer than it is today. But as the industry, the environment, and the international landscape change, we must prepare for future challenges.
As envisioned in the New Era of Smarter Food Safety, the combination of tech-enabled traceability, smarter tools for prevention and response, new business models and retail modernization and a collaborative food safety culture where industry is implementing the preventive framework envisioned by FSMA, paint an exciting picture for the future.
The recent acceleration of digital technologies enabling traceability and predictive capabilities, innovation in genomics facilitating outbreak response, and advances in agricultural biotechnology that allow food production to resist the effects of climate change and feed the growing global population bring that vision even closer within reach.
Further, food is the foundation of health. Smarter food safety, better nutrition, and ongoing efforts to reduce environmental contaminants and toxins in our food supply are critical for improved health of the whole U.S. population.
I anticipate a future in which people have more reliably safe food, more access to variety and certainty about availability; and the agricultural ecosystem thrives, enabling it to feed the U.S. and the world. To realize this future, we must reexamine and reinvent the ways we approach our food safety and nutrition work.
During my confirmation, I was contacted by multiple experts and concerned groups about the perception that the FDA’s Foods Program is not adequately organized or supported.
In my first five months back in the job I’ve met with stakeholders and experts to discuss FDA’s Foods Program and food policy priorities for the next decade. My assessment is that the Foods Program is staffed by highly dedicated people; I can’t stress enough how hard they work and the depth of their knowledge. But they are working in a suboptimal environment that needs to be reformed.
Accordingly, we have initiated a full review of the Foods Program, including its structure, function, leadership, authorities and funding. I want to assure you that I intend to communicate about and implement any organizational and strategic changes that will further improve the performance of the Agency’s Foods Program.
Several key issues must be addressed, and we will not wait for the results of the full assessment to get started:
- Hiring and retaining Foods Program staff has long been a concern. I am grateful that the user fee reauthorization bills in both Chambers recognize the great need to get the right staff on board quickly.
- Failures of the supply chain throughout the pandemic, and particularly the recent infant formula crisis, have shown the importance of new authorities FDA seeks to anticipate and respond to supply shortages.
- As the world moves to digitize its information, the Foods Program must upgrade its technology and modernize its work processes to enable its workforce to be maximally productive, using machine learning and virtual methods to keep up with the vast and rapidly expanding foods ecosystem.
- Food contamination and recall events will always capture the headlines, but we must balance the food safety plan with work on nutritional science and labeling that enables consumers to make informed dietary choices and facilitates industry reformulation. When FDA added trans-fat to the Nutrition Facts label, intake decreased by 80%. The results of FDA’s nutrition work go largely unseen, only becoming evident through generations of health data, yet turning the tide on diet-related chronic disease is a critical priority for me and this administration because of the potential to impact the health of every American, dramatically reduce health care costs and close our life expectancy gap—currently five (5) years shorter than the average of other high-income countries.
As we work together to implement needed changes, and identify critical gaps in authorities or resources, I will continue to engage with Congress as we all share the same goals of a safer food supply.
In conclusion, our food has never been safer, yet challenges remain, and we must do better. One food outbreak is one too many. I appreciate your attention to this and look forward to continuing to work with you to ensure the Foods Program at FDA has the right structure, people, budget, and authority to keep our food supply safe.