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If the FDA can’t do better than mass confusion, put someone else in charge

Submitted by on Saturday, 14 March 2009 No Comment
Food and Drug Administration left hand, meet the Food and Drug Administration right hand. You two need to talk.

Right hand says we'll look at banning children's cold medicine because some parents misuse it. The reason: The medication has never been tested on youngsters and there's no scientific proof it works.

Left hand says we'll keep studying BPA even though study after study has shown that the plastic additive could hurt children and developing fetuses. Luckily, Congress is stepping into the breach on this one.

Right hand lets state agriculture department inspectors handle food inspections, with disasterous results as officials look the other way for years. This leads to the salmonella outbreak in peanut butter that killed eight and sickened hundreds more.

Left hand is eerily silent when a consumer group finds cancer-causing chemicals in baby bath products. In the past, though, the FDA has said a little bit of the substances are OK, but no one's studied what happens when doses of "a little bit"add up on a day-in, day-out basis.

We need more studies. We've never bothered to study before approving a product. We'll consider banning with no studies. We'll turn our job over to someone else and then not check to see if they're doing the work.

Is there any policy or philosophical consistency anywhere in this agency? Anywhere at all?

Enter Dr. Margaret Hamburg, announced this week as President Barack Obama's pick to head the Foot Dragging Administration. At the same time, Obama said he wants to create a food-safety group to advise him on legislation.

The second part is both encouraging and disturbing. It's great that this issue finally is rising to the level of presidential awareness. It's sad that more time is going to be spent studying when so many folks know exactly what needs to be done.

The first step is blowing up the FDA. Even if the agency functioned efficiently with managers who didn't intimidate their own scientists, the mission is simply too unwieldy. Regulate everything from pet food to bubble bath to prosthetics to medication to peanut butter.

And even if one super-charged agency could handle all of that, you'd still have the complicating factor of the U.S. Agriculture Department also handling part of the food-safety equation.

Clearly, someone needs to be in charge, and it needs to be someone with the consumers, not the corporations, in mind.

With her background in bioterrorism, Hamburg can make great inroads in food safety. FDA officials used those laws, if you'll remember, to finally crack open the salmonella cess poll that was Peanut Corporation of America, threatening officials with terrorism charges if they didn't turn over reports. Supporters say that Hamburg, an experienced administrator, can restore competency to the agency.

Let's hope so. But there's plenty reason to believe the answer to food safety is not going to be within the FDA but in creating something outside the FDA, with true regulatory powers and a fire in its eye to enforce them.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved. Inconsistent? Negligent? Too cozy with companies at the expense of the rest of us? All of the above.

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