As we reported earlier, James Jones, a former EPA employee, was chosen to be FDA’s “food czar,” the first leader for the evolving Human Foods Program.
If you’re asking “who?” you’re not alone. A lot of heads in the food & beverage industry were scratched in late August trying to place the name.
Our repeated calls for more information – a photo, what exactly was his title at EPA, is he still employed there – all were met with “this is all the information we have” from FDA media relations. PR folks at EPA were no help either until, a day later, someone responded, “Mr. Jones is not a current employee of EPA. He was last employed at the agency in 2017. That is all the information we are able to share.”
Jones' LinkedIn page fills in some of the gaps: In nearly 20 years at EPA, he rose to an assistant commissioner before leaving in early 2017. Then he started his own consultancy, interrupted by a brief stint as executive vice president of the Household and Commercial Products Assn.
The selection of the very first deputy commissioner for the Human Foods Program was supposed to be a momentous hiring. After years of criticism, the food side of the FDA was getting a major overhaul. Robert Califf, the FDA's overall commissioner, had cleaned house, with the three top food officials leaving earlier this year. Those three had names that people in the food industry recognized: Frank Yiannas, Judy McMeekin, Susan Mayne. Apparently none of them was good enough for the new job.
But Jones, a pesticide expert, is?
While a couple of food associations chimed in with the expected congratulatory press releases, the Natural Products Assn. pulled no punches. Citing an FDA "accountability gap" with Congress, industry and Americans at large, "How will [Jones'] lack of technical understanding for the industries FDA regulates fill that gap?"
I see this two ways, and I'm not alone in that camp. Who in their right mind would want to take over a program that has been described as a shambles? Actually, a program that doesn’t exist, not yet anyway, one that is being fleshed out in measured doses to appease the many powerful critics, especially those in Congress who hold the purse strings. I’m told several high-profile and more obvious choices for the job didn’t want it under the current circumstances. Some were specifically solicited but turned it down.
The other possibility is that Mr. Jones is precisely the right guy for the moment. An outsider, a bureaucrat who allegedly knows how to create organizational structure, knows how Washington works and doesn’t have any food industry baggage that can cloud his judgment. One of the criticisms in the Politico expose that took the agency to task last year was that food safety regulators were too chummy with or too fearful of Big Food to pick fights.
Clearly, the deputy commissioner’s immediate job is to create a Human Foods Program out of the pieces – some have called them opposing camps – of the FDA. That's a sizable job and, if done right, the details of food safety, regulation and enforcement should fall into place.
Now that I've vented, I'll give Mr. Jones the benefit of the doubt and wish him luck. You all should, too. Then we'll watch what happens next.