Whither the FDA?

In the last few years, the United States has witnessed a number of severe outbreaks of food-borne illness, some of which resulted in deaths. Many originated on single farms with products that quickly spread through the food supply, thanks to the highly distributed nature of the food system in the United States; grow peanuts in Georgia and they could end up anywhere, thanks to a central processor and distributor who blends components from multiple facilities and sends them out across the country. Each new outbreak comes with appropriate scaremongering headlines about the dangers of food, making readers terrified of the grocery store, never knowing which aisle might house a killer.

The Food and Drug Administration is supposed to play a key role in protecting the safety of the food supply and reacting quickly when there’s a problem. Yet, in several recent outbreaks, the FDA has been implicated when it comes to tracking down what happened and why; the agency both failed to prevent outbreaks in the first place, and didn’t act quickly enough to identify and contain them when they occurred. The agency’s failure to do its job threatened lives and the economy, and in some cases resulted in actual deaths.

As a regulatory agency, the FDA occupies a somewhat strange role in society. On the one hand, it gets slapped around for not doing its job; people point at events like these to argue that clearly it’s hidebound and in need of replacement or serious overhaul. On the other hand, it’s criticised for doing its job too well, hanging up approval of medications or adding needless red tape to the process of bringing new products to market. People can’t seem to decide which it is when they struggle to articulate their hatred of the FDA, and the truth of the matter actually lies somewhere in the middle.

The FDA, like many government agencies, has been subject to radical funding slashes in an attempt to save the government some money. Oddly enough, when you cut funding, you make it harder for agencies to do their jobs. It’s harder to attract and retain top talent, higher to maintain appropriate staffing levels, and harder to perform basic tasks. With fewer inspectors, the FDA can’t evaluate as many sites as it wants to, and should. With fewer people on staff, it has less time to conduct research, including identifying emerging trends and technologies and deciding how to deal with them on a regulatory level. With fewer people available to work with Congress and other agencies, it has a tough time fighting the lobbyists backed by big budgets who can play a key role in policymaking in the United States.

Consequently, the food system is less safe. Unknown additives are included in foods, medications, and other products. Contaminated food and medication slip past the radar because there aren’t enough inspectors to identify problems and inspect facilities to ensure that they conform with regulatory guidelines. When outbreaks do occur, precious time is wasted trying to organise personnel to respond to them, and trying to deal with the consequences of not having enough people on staff; the FDA cannot be fleet, mobile, and highly responsive, because it lacks the efficiency needed to do that. Meanwhile, contaminated cantaloupes or spinach or pharmaceuticals continue flowing through the market.

Clearly the FDA could benefit from reorganisation to make it function more smoothly; like many government agencies, it has become topheavy through the years and that’s not going to help it function at its best. But more than that, it urgently needs more money, and for the organisation to put that money to use in the most effective, clean, and efficient way. Simply throwing more money at a bloated and troubled agency isn’t the solution to the problem; structural reform and increased funding must go hand in hand. But these things require a commitment from Congress as well as society to the FDA, respecting the potential of the organisation to actually do what it was designed and intended to do, if it’s provided with the support to do so.

Influence from lobbyists and other industry pressures needs to be reduced so FDA representatives can focus on doing their jobs, which include regulating the industries they’re supposed to be watching, but sometimes seem to be in bed with instead. And the FDA needs to be able to operate with the confidence that its decisions will be backed; whether they include promptly and efficiently recalling suspect products, or reevaluating chemicals previously believed to be safe, or instituting new procedures for drug approval to address concerns about the handling of the current process.

This is an agency that provides a vital and invaluable service to the United States, and it’s being allowed to fall apart, much to the risk of public safety. There’s no reason the FDA should be neglected to this degree, unless of course corporate profits are of more concern than the health and welfare of the public. The fact that the agency has been allowed to fall into such decay is deeply troubling, made more so by the fact that it faces continued attacks from Congress and other corners to strip it even further of regulatory teeth, funding, and other needed backing. Without a functioning FDA, we could return to a truly terrifying era of poisonous foods, medications, and cosmetics, quack nostrums peddled as legitimate, and people suffering needlessly as a result of corporate greed.