Robert Califf, MD, who served as FDA commissioner for President Obama, has been nominated by President Joe Biden to once again head the agency. In related news, the President has nominated Jose Emilio Esteban, DVM, PhD, a veterinarian and food safety expert, for USDA under secretary of food safety.
The Senate must still confirm both positions.
Califf’s Food Safety Priorities Unknown
Dr. Califf is a renowned cardiologist and researcher and his knowledge on healthcare issues is well documented; what he might bring to issues of food safety are yet unknown.
Among the food issues that that he will be charged with, if confirmed, will be the upcoming regulatory framework on cell-based meat that the FDA is readying, and food label issues dealing with defining the terms “healthy” and “natural.” Also on his radar will be FDA’s New Era of Smarter Food Safety, which leverages tech to create a safer and more digital, traceable food system.
Kathleen Merrigan, former U.S. deputy secretary of agriculture who now leads the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University in Phoenix and is a senior global futures scientist for the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, noted that Dr. Califf’s food safety priorities have yet to be revealed, so his actions are somewhat difficult to predict. “I’m hoping that he champions new dietary guidelines for children and pregnant and lactating women and accelerates work to address toxic elements in food consumed by babies and young children,” she tells Food Quality & Safety. “While the critical work of FDA’s 18,000 employees is ongoing, it really takes an administrator to elevate and advance bold policy initiatives. Given Dr. Califf’s short stint as FDA Administrator, I imagine he is eager to return and attend to unfinished business.”
Esteban Has Long History With FSIS
Esteban has spent the last three years as chief scientist for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), offering scientific advice to support agency policies including the disciplines of microbiology, chemistry, and pathology. He’s been with the agency for 15 years.
“As an epidemiologist and veterinarian, Dr. Esteban has outstanding credentials for the job,” Merrigan says. “Besides running FSIS day to day, he is crisis ready. We hope we don’t have a food safety crisis, of course, but what if we face another kind of mad cow disease for example? We can be confident that we have someone at the helm who knows the science and how government works.”
With their positions in the FDA and USDA respectively, Dr. Califf and Dr. Esteban will sometimes work together on food safety matters. For instance, one area of cooperative work relates to the safety of fruits and vegetables. “Following food safety problems with leafy greens years ago, Congress gave FDA authority over the safety of produce. Yet USDA has far more expertise on productions aspects of fruit and vegetables,” Merrigan said. “When I served as Deputy Secretary, we embedded USDA produce experts within FDA to bolster their production know-how to help deliver sensible regulations.”