The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced earlier this week that it would not renew the charter of its Food Advisory Committee. This group was established in 1992 to oversee matters of food science, food safety and nutrition. The committee "has held only a handful of meetings over the past several years and has not met since 2015. Therefore, FDA has determined that the effort and expense of maintaining the advisory committee is no longer justified," the agency said.
FDA indicated that it would use other standing committees and consultations with individual experts to address appropriate subjects as needed. "In addition, the agency will continue its robust stakeholder engagement program and to solicit broad public and expert input on its policy documents and regulations," FDA said.
When the committee last met in December 2015, nine of its 15 members were affiliated with academic institutions, two represented consumer organizations, and two represented industry groups. The agenda at that meeting included historical and scientific perspectives on listeria monocytogenes in food and the federal government's zero-tolerance approach to listeria control. Based on advice from the committee and other sources, FDA announced it would change its listeria guidelines, The Packer reported.
It's unclear whether the FDA Food Advisory Committee was really not needed, or if it just had not been fully utilized in the past two years. It's possible that the move simply reflects the shifting priorities of FDA Director Scott Gottlieb, whose focus since he was sworn into office in May appears to be on deregulating drugs and medical devices and withdrawing or declassifying food regulations.
One former member of the advisory committee was publicly critical of the decision.
"The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s announcement today that it will discontinue its Food Advisory Committee is further evidence of the low value this administration places on independent scientific advice," Lisa Lefferts, a senior scientist with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said in a statement.
She added that members of FDA boards may lack food issue expertise and that outside sources of advice may not bring the independence, conflict of interest prevention and consumer presence required of advisory committee members.
It may not matter that FDA no longer has a Food Advisory Committee if agency management makes an energetic effort to reach out to a wide range of pertinent individuals and groups for educated perspectives on food safety and nutrition issues. In the announcement that it was terminating the committee, FDA indicated that it would be doing just that by committing to work with the FDA Science Board and other advisory committees and panels.
"For example, the program is already developing plans for 2018 to engage the FDA Science Board in the review of Food and Veterinary Medicine research priorities and to address evolving applications of whole genome sequencing technologies for regulatory food safety," FDA stated. "In addition, FDA plans to seek advice from the Risk Communication Advisory Committee to address best practices for communicating with consumers about unavoidable contaminants in the food supply."
It hasn't been easy to get a clear sense of where the new FDA director stands on many food safety and nutrition issues. So far, he's delayed compliance dates for the updated Nutrition Facts label, postponed the deadline for foodservice menu calorie labeling and extended certain enforcement dates under the Food Safety Modernization Act.
In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Gottlieb lightly weighed in on another food issue before FDA, appearing to say that the agency would be defining the term "healthy" on a case-by-case basis when it comes to claims about food. He told the newspaper that “in order to allow innovation around things that produce public-health benefits, we need to allow people to make claims around those public-health attributes.”
It's unclear which direction Gottlieb's FDA and the Trump administration will continue on food safety and nutrition. While the administration has committed to reducing regulations, very few other positions have been articulated from the White House. Days after Gottlieb was confirmed in May, several regulators from agencies — including FDA — said they felt the importance of food safety and the science behind it was well enough understood that they anticipated nothing but forward movement. However, doing away with the advisory committee charged with providing solid input on important matters involving food science, food safety and nutrition may not the most efficient way to move forward on these goals.