In a recent conversation with PharmaBoardroom, Prof. Hisham Bin Saad Al-Jadhey, CEO of the Saudi Food and Drug Authority (SFDA) outlined the organisation’s strategic priorities. As part of the Authority’s 2018-2022 strategic plan, it has set out a number of goals, ranging from setting clearer objectives to strengthening its capabilities, investing more into communication and collaboration, and focusing on areas such as nutrition and halal medicine.
First established 17 years ago, the SFDA today has 2,100 employees and one of the largest mandates of any regulatory authority in the world, covering cover food, drugs, medical devices, agricultural products, and cosmetics in Saudi Arabia.
From initially aspiring to be the leading regulator in the MENA region, Bin Saad Al-Jadhey explains that the SFDA today has loftier ambitions. “We updated this vision four years ago because we realized we had already achieved leadership within the region,” he notes. “Now, we are advancing towards international leadership, and based on this, we have updated our strategy, work priorities and structure.”
Bin Saad Al-Jadhey explains the rationale behind the SFDA’s areas of focus below.
“Our third strategic plan has really focused on defining and setting Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for our objectives. For instance, one of our KPIs is in the reduction of foodborne illnesses. The goal was to decrease it by ten percent, and we have achieved this. In fact, as a result of COVID-19, we actually saw a reduction of over 50 percent in part due to the increase in hygiene practices people have implemented. This is an area where we are also working with other government entities, the private sector, and individuals, to improve.
“We have similar KPIs for medicines and medical devices as well to help us bridge the gap between where we are and where we want to be. For example, in terms of clinical trials, we currently have clinical trials in the country and we approve them, but there are some challenges when it comes to their operations. We want to highlight Saudi Arabia as a unique clinical trial destination.”
“Another priority has been to strengthen our capabilities. In food, as an example, we more than doubled the size of our risk assessment team in the last three years, not only that but we are also focusing on enhancing the quality of the talents in our team by hiring employees with high education degrees to advance the quality of work.
“In addition, we have signed many different Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) to improve our capacity. For instance, we assembled an international advisory board including some former heads of other regulatory agencies to advise our risk assessment team.
“We did the same for the drugs and medical devices teams. For instance, we have doubled the number of evaluators we have, from around 70 four years ago to over 150 evaluators now. We also have around 50 scientists working on the regulatory science side. We initiated a new quality check program, where we bring in international consultants to review our evaluation, which offer learning opportunities for our team.
“We are investing a lot in developing our regulatory capabilities, especially for drugs. We know that biologics has become a hugely important area and it is the future of medicine, so in 2017, we established a new biologics department within the SFDA.”
“Communication is another very important priority for us. Our aim is to be the leading source of reliable and important communication about the benefits and safety concerns of food, drugs and medical devices in the world – mainly in Arabic. There are a lot of Arabic speakers, even in non-Arabic countries, and we want to provide them with the right information. For instance, we have started a project to create a video on this topic that can be seen by 1 billion people in the world. We have around 100 volunteers working on this right now.”
“We have embraced collaborations with universities across Saudi Arabia, and we hope to establish reference laboratories for different projects in these universities.
“Another really important priority is international collaboration. We have around 14 MOUs signed with different countries, and we are also participating actively in international organizations. For instance, we led the global harmonization working group for medical devices and we are part of the International Council for Harmonization of Technical Requirements for Pharmaceuticals for Human Use (ICH). We lead the Near East Committee for the Codex Alimentarius, a collection of international food standards set by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the World Health Organization. We have also established a new forum for food standards in collaboration with the food authorities in Australia and Ireland, which aims at gathering heads of distinctive food agencies around the world to discuss and promote public health and food safety. The first forum was held in Riyadh in January 2020, and the forum now has many members and observers such as the US, France, South Korea, Japan, China, Kuwait and Morocco. Also, many international organizations have joined the forum as observers such as WHO, the FAO and the Codex.”
“Two years ago, we also established the National Committee on Nutrition, which is part of SFDA and which I chair. We have a number of governmental and private committee members, and they meet very actively. The goal is to improve the nutrition of people in Saudi Arabia. We have invested tens of millions of riyals to conduct studies regarding the nutritional status and needs of the Saudi people because we currently only have figures from external sources. We do not know how many calories Saudi people actually need. We do not know their current daily consumption. We want to conduct these studies and update the nutritional recommendations for Saudi people.”
“Last but not least, we are working on projects to promote HALAL products and regulations. The SFDA now has a Saudi HALAL Center, which issues HALAL certifications. I am leading our strategic work here on a national level. We meet every two weeks with over 16 governmental entities, including the Ministry of Industry and Mineral Resources and the Saudi Export Development Authority We will also organize the HALAL Expo this year. We are developing a halal hub in King Abdullah Economic City. These efforts relate to our focus on nutrition and healthy food, because we want to personalize the halal diet and recommendations for each individual, right down to the source of the animal feed.”