"When it comes to the foods we eat, we live in an unprecedented time of technological change," begins a March 19 public letter from FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and Deputy Commissioner Frank Yiannas. That intro sets the stage for explaining some of the new initiatives and costs in the president's 2020 budget for the agency.
The food (and drug) safety agency asks for a fiscal 2020 appropriation of $6.1 billion, a 12 percent increase over its FY 2019 budget. That includes $1.122 billion specifically for food and an increase of 103 employees (to 4,008) dedicated to food (there are a dozen or more other categorical line items equivalent to "food," including human drugs, biologics, animal drugs & feed, etc.).
And while his name is on the document, Gottlieb has announced his desire to leave the agency within a month. Norman “Ned” Sharpless, now head of the National Cancer Institute, has been named interim head.
"Thanks to innovations in technology and the requirements of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), we now have more opportunities to strengthen public health and bring innovative food products to consumers than perhaps at any other time in our history," the letter explains. "But our ability to fulfill these responsibilities becomes more challenging every year with increased globalization, advances in science and technology and shifts in consumer expectations that drive change throughout the food system."
That’s why, the two say, the proposed 2020 budget includes new funding for "solidifying the agency’s tools under FSMA … [to] improve our ability to secure the food supply chain and engage in more effective tracking and tracing of food from farm to fork [and to] improve our capabilities for both detecting and responding to food contamination when preventive measures alone are insufficient."
One of the first specifics mentions "new resources" to fund the State Cooperative Agreement Program. "The FDA’s funding supports the states in conducting more than half of the domestic food and more than 80 percent of animal feed facility inspections required by FSMA."
There also was a shout-out to Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS), "a game changer for the way we find and address microbial contamination in foods. This technology has made it easier determine the source of contaminated food associated with human illness, and to better identify foodborne outbreaks that previously would have gone undetected."
But the success of WGS also has greatly increased the FDA’s workload. So, "we’re also requesting additional resources to support the use of WGS and expand our ability to respond when we identify food contamination."
Among emerging track-and trace technologies, the letter mentions blockchain. "While our primary goal in enhancing track and trace is protecting public health, this new technology will also assist industry by minimizing the number of products implicated in outbreaks of foodborne illness and other product problems that could result in the loss of millions of dollars in profits."
The increased funding for state food safety resources mentioned earlier can "allow the FDA to focus more resources on import oversight." Nevertheless, the agency needs more money to increase compliance with Foreign Supplier Verification Programs and the Import Alert program.
Finally, the agency acknowledges the emergence of biotechnology products, both genetically engineered animals and plants and cell-cultured products. "Part of our public health mission is to advance these promising innovations and to ensure they’re safe and that they don’t have any unintended consequences" while also "avoiding unnecessary barriers to future innovation." So FDA needs more money for that.
"We’re dedicated to making sure the FDA continues building a modern, prevention-based food safety system," the letter ends. "We believe that the additional resources requested from Congress will help our program better protect our nation’s food supply and lay the foundation for efforts to create a new era of smarter food safety in which new technologies can provide innovative products, help us better detect outbreaks, and better track and trace foods in the supply chain to prevent contaminated foods from reaching consumers."