Innovation in the consumer’s interest:  The path forward on food policy at FDA
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We were busy on food policy at the Food and Drug Administration during the Obama years.  We worked to implement a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s food safety system, modernize the Nutrition Facts label on billions of food packages, require calorie labeling on chain restaurant menus, propose sodium reduction targets, and prohibit most remaining uses of trans fat-containing oils, among other consumer protection initiatives.

I’m often asked what difference the election will make.  Will these efforts get rolled back? Will FDA be able to continue progress toward a food supply that is safe and that maximizes opportunities for consumers to choose healthy diets?  

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How will the safety of new ingredients and new food production technologies be assured?  There is now no mandatory requirement for FDA even to be notified that plant food products of gene editing are entering the market.  Is leaving such market entry decisions solely to the discretion of industry good enough to assure safety, transparency, and trust?

But a lot hasn’t changed, most importantly what consumers are demanding from the food system – safety, transparency and trust – and how that is driving industry innovation in the products they sell.  The dedicated and skilled people who work at FDA have the same interests.  But neither FDA nor industry can succeed by themselves.  That creates great opportunity for collaboration on policy initiatives that foster the innovation consumers want.  And that’s the path forward. 

Pressure to innovate in the consumer’s interest comes straight from the marketplace.  Taste, price and convenience are still important, but they no longer dominate consumer purchase decisions.  Equally important today, according to a 2016 Deloitte Consulting survey of 5,000 consumers, are “evolving drivers of the consumer value equation:” (1) health and wellness, (2) safety, (3) social impact, such as local sourcing and sustainability, (4) experience, meaning how companies can engage consumers to earn trust, and (5) transparency about where food comes from and how it is made.

These consumer interests help explain why food industry leaders supported or at least acquiesced in most of FDA’s recent food policy initiatives.  On the food safety overhaul, industry associations advocated for passage of the law, supported the extensive rulemaking it required, and pushed Congress to fund implementation.  In fact, the law was passed with bipartisan support and – at the urging of a united industry and consumer coalition – the Republican Congress appropriated more for food safety modernization than the Obama White House requested.  

On health and wellness, many food companies are reformulating products to reduce sodium, sugar and fat, or produce entirely new foods that expand choice and give consumers what they want, like a mayonnaise product without the eggs. 

Some of this reformulation involves sophisticated, science-driven, technological innovation. The development of salt substitutes is an important focus of industry R&D that could have big health benefits. The new field of cellular agriculture is already producing animal protein without the animals, which appeals to consumers who have concerns about the safety, sustainability, environmental and animal welfare impacts of conventional meat and dairy production.  Recent and dramatic advances in gene editing have the potential to transform the plant and animal sources of our food and could help meet consumer demands globally in a more sustainable way. 

None of this innovation will fulfill its potential, however, without strong assurances of product safety, transparency about the new products, and trust in those offering the innovation. And it is on these topics that FDA food policy can make a significant contribution in the coming years. 

How will the safety of new ingredients and new food production technologies be assured?  There is now no mandatory requirement for FDA even to be notified that products of gene editing are entering the market.  Is leaving such market entry decisions solely to the discretion of industry good enough to assure safety, transparency, and trust?

How can FDA labeling policy incentivize and enable companies to innovate in ways that meet consumer demands?  When the eggless “Just Mayo” mayonnaise product was first introduced, it ran afoul of an obsolete FDA “standard of identity” that required eggs.  Companies that want to market nutritionally-improved foods and call them “healthy” can be stymied by a two-decade old FDA definition of the term that needs updating to reflect new science.

All of these issues are on FDA’s radar.  And, at the most basic level, FDA’s goals line up with those of consumers and industry.  Everyone wants safety, transparency, and trust. The food policy opportunity lying ahead is to identify the topics on which dialogue and collaboration between FDA and the food industry can provide real benefits for consumers – and work together to get results.

Taylor served as FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine from 2010 to 2016.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.