In mid-December, the U.S. Senate presided over the confirmation hearing of Dr. Robert Califf, President Biden’s nominee to serve as commissioner of FDA. Califf held the same position at the end of the Obama administration, making him familiar with FDA’s inner workings.

While USDA is often more prominent as the federal food agency, FDA is one of the most important regulatory agencies within the federal government because it helps ensure the safety, nutritional quality, and security of nearly 75% of our nation’s food supply. The International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) is pleased to see President Biden nominate a highly qualified public health expert in Califf to lead FDA, but we and other organizations representing food producers and processors have serious concerns with FDA’s overall processes and accountability to the food sector.

Problematic food standards

During the past two years, drug development, public health, and vaccine administration were — and had to be — the critical focus of FDA. At the same time, most food standards have not been updated in decades even as nutrition and diets have become more personalized.

Consider yogurt — a simple, wholesome dairy product. FDA developed its first yogurt standard of identity 40 years ago. Food standards such as this one are mandatory requirements set by FDA that determine what a food product must contain and how it must be made to be marketed under a product name — in this case, as yogurt.

About 20 years ago, the yogurt industry petitioned FDA to update the standard of identity to keep pace with changing production practices in response to consumer demands. The agency responded nine years later with a proposed rule.

Then, just a few months ago after 11 more years, FDA issued its final rule with little warning. Instead of reflecting advances in the industry, it imposed strict limitations on what may be called yogurt. The result is that about 25% of popular cup-set yogurts will need to be removed from store shelves unless significant changes are made in production and labeling.

After decades of providing guidance to FDA and waiting, IDFA is now objecting to the yogurt rule and requesting a hearing before the FDA. What a wasted opportunity to allow for innovative yogurt production.

Encouraging collaboration

With Califf’s confirmation, IDFA is using the moment to encourage FDA to partner with the private sector to foster streamlined regulatory processes that advance innovative technologies for healthier-profile products that positively impact public health. A partnership with the private sector should also apply to food safety to advance risk-based (versus hazard-based) food safety policies grounded in the best available science.

IDFA values the work of FDA on matters of food safety, food standards, labeling and nutrition, and health. We congratulate Califf on his nomination. With new leadership at FDA, now is the time to establish greater transparency, accountability, and collaboration. Let’s hope Califf embraces science-based innovations, changing consumer dietary needs, and the need for expedited rules and analysis as the next FDA commissioner.

Joe Scimeca, Ph.D., is senior vice president, regulatory and scientific affairs, for the International Dairy Foods Association.