Uncertainty under Trump? Not among food safety regulators

Despite concerns in other areas of government, top regulators from the FDA, USDA, CDC and AFDO remain confident in the direction of food safety under the new administration

While uncertainty swirls about how the Trump administration will affect U.S. policy from national security to climate change, food safety regulators remain confident. 

“For me, I believe food safety is going to be one of the best worlds to be in these next four years,” said Alfred Almanza, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) acting deputy undersecretary for food safety and administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

Almanza shared the stage at the Food Safety Summit in Chicago on Thursday with Dr. Robert Tauxe, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) director of foodborne, waterborne and environmental diseases; Dr. Stephen Ostroff, the deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA); and Joseph Corby, executive director of the Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO).

“For me, I believe food safety is going to be one of the best worlds to be in these next four years.”

Alfred Almanza

USDA acting deputy undersecretary for food safety and FSIS administrator

All four regulators gave updates on their agencies — what's coming next and what the future may hold. While Almanza was the most confident, they all seemed to have faith that policy and funding — at least in the areas of food safety they oversee — will go in the right direction.

Corby, whose organization supports streamlining local, state and federal food regulations, said he has seen an unprecedented amount of collaboration between all levels of food safety officials. Before taking the helm of AFDO, Corby spent 37 years in the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets — and he’s seen his fair share of policy fights.

“We knew that to create an integrated system would take a while,” Corby said. “It’s a long process and people have to change cultures. But there are things going on right now that have never been done before. That I never thought would happen.”

Among those unprecedented acts of collaboration, Corby pointed out the FDA and state authorities in Wisconsin have come up with a sharing agreement: A federal inspection also counts as a state inspection, meaning that food facilities don’t have to be scrutinized twice by different regulators. Meanwhile in New York, the FDA is using state-level reports to prepare federal import alerts.

Ostroff said this collaboration is key to achieving food safety. As more agencies work together, they advance a common — and nonpartisan — goal.

“In the food safety arena, I think we have a pretty good story to tell. ... I haven’t heard anything to indicate that doesn’t resonate with the administration.”

Dr. Stephen Ostroff

Acting commissioner of food and drugs, FDA

“In the food safety arena, I think we have a pretty good story to tell,” he said. “It’s a pretty good story in terms of what we’re about, where we’re going, and what the impact will be in public safety and health. I haven’t heard anything to indicate that doesn’t resonate with the administration.”

Ostroff did not go into specifics about FDA leadership under the Trump administration; the agency’s commissioner Scott Gottlieb was just confirmed to his position on Tuesday. FDA is a part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which is now run by former Congressman Tom Price. 

Almanza had nothing but positive things to say about USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue. The former Georgia governor is a veterinarian, which is making Perdue’s transition incredibly smooth, according to Almanza. His education and background are critical to understanding the need for food safety measures, and he is familiar with threats like salmonella, E. coli and campylobacter. Almanza, who has worked under four new USDA secretaries in his career at the agency, said he normally has to explain more about why these bacteria are important.

“I would say that that’s the reason that food safety is going to really have a lot of safety over the next four years, just because we have that foundation of having a veterinarian in that position,” Almanza told Food Dive after the panel.

Both former politicians from Georgia, HHS Secretary Tom Price and USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue already had a working relationship before joining Trump’s Cabinet. Almanza said that Perdue promised him USDA would be working “closer than ever before” with FDA on food safety and regulations as the administration goes forward. Both agencies are responsible for different aspects of food safety.

Even before Perdue was confirmed, Almanza said he received nothing but support from the Trump transition team. The administration placed a government-wide hiring freeze on all agencies, but Almanza was able to get exceptions to fill vacancies in lab and field positions within 24 hours. USDA’s food safety budget so far has also been fully funded.

Meanwhile, the CDC does not have a director yet and Trump has yet to name a nominee. However, the CDC's Tauxe felt positive that the agency will move in the right direction. The CDC is also under HHS, and Tauxe said he is confident that Price — who used to represent the area near CDC’s Atlanta headquarters in Congress — understands the importance of food safety.

“I’m very optimistic that the future of science is alive and well."

Dr. Robert Tauxe

CDC director of foodborne, waterborne and environmental diseases

Although the Trump administration has been criticized by many in the scientific community, Tauxe said there are many young scientists who want to work with the CDC to make a difference.

“I’m very optimistic that the future of science is alive and well,” Tauxe said.

For regulators, science is the reason behind every action, Almanza said. In this administration — and any before or after — science is of the utmost importance.

“I think it’s incumbent upon ourselves to be able to explain why it is we do what we do — and give them the tools to justify it,” he said.

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Filed Under: Food Safety Policy
Top image credit: Flickr - Gage Skidmore