‘I used to say FDA stood for foot-dragging artists’

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FDA is, of course, government shorthand for the Food and Drug Administration or, as Helena Bottemiller Evich makes crystal clear in a deeply-sourced, richly detailed April 8 exposé, the Food and Drug Administration.

The emphasis is required, explains Bottemiller Evich, a senior editor and ag reporter at Politico, because “a monthslong …  investigation” found “that regulating food is simply not a high priority at the agency, where drugs and other medical products dominate …”

That’s a deadly problem for every American because the FDA “oversees nearly 80% of the American food supply.” For decades, though, it hasn’t done that job well, FDA official after FDA official told Bottemiller Evich.

For example, she notes, “‘There are a lot of things that languish,’” Stepan Ostroff, “who twice served as acting commissioner of FDA,” told her. “‘There’s nobody pushing very hard to get them done … We don’t have that … pressure to actually make things happen on the food side.’”

Laundry list of concerns

More pointedly, “When Politico called Ostroff, he was so eager to discuss the agency’s problems, he prepared a laundry list of his concerns.”

Indeed, FDA slowness is so achingly deliberate that it borders on incompetence. Examples abound: It was years before FDA acknowledged dangerous pathogens and heavy metal contamination in baby foods; it was “slow” to recognize the danger of “PFAS, so-called forever chemicals” found in food packaging; and it spent “the better part of a decade working on voluntary sodium reduction goals” while “other countries moved ahead with their own years ago.”

This tortoise approach with the nation’s food safety carries a price. “This government dysfunction has a real impact…” writes Bottemiller Evich. “The CDC [Center for Disease Control] estimates that more than 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 people die from foodborne illnesses each year–a toll that has not lessened after a sweeping update to food safety a decade ago.”

Bipartisan dysfunction

And the dysfunction is bipartisan. Republican and Democratic White Houses and Congresses have both been badly served by FDA, reports Bottemiller Evich, who spoke with “more than 50 people” and found a “remarkable level of consensus that the agency is simply not working.”

It’s more than that, though. Former–and, remarkably, even current–“officials and industry professionals used terms like ‘ridiculous,’ ‘impossible,’ ‘broken,’ ‘byzantine,’ and ‘a joke’ to describe the state of food regulation at FDA.”

Some of FDA’s problems are tied to its dual mission — both food and drug safety. “‘They have too many programs and not enough resources,’” Bottemiller Evich quotes one principal deputy commissioner, “‘and the mismatch is profound.’”

Currently, the “vast majority … [or] about two thirds” of FDA’s “roughly $1 billion food budget goes … to pay for inspections” even though the “number of food inspections performed each year have been going down …” How can that be?

Because, “‘There is simply no accountability in Congress,’” a long-time FDA economist told Bottemiller Evich. “‘I guess most of their staff really don’t understand the risk issues that FDA faces [and, in turn] (t)hey don’t really know what to say to FDA to hold them accountable.’” That’s shameful.

Big food

Equally shameful, a recent reshuffle inside FDA food safety programs ignited intraoffice turf fights over jurisdiction and authority, again grinding agency gears already slipping after years of neglect and inactivity. Lobbying by big food through the U.S. Department of Agriculture didn’t help, either.

“‘The food industry is lobbying USDA, which in turn puts pressure on FDA through the White House and Capitol Hill, in a way that’s unproductive …’” former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told Politico.

Bottemiller Evich, however, makes it clear that FDA has more problems than just big food bigfooting its way around FDA. FDA has become a shrimp in an ocean of transnational whales and its — and our elected officials’, too — failure to bulk up to match today’s increasingly industrialized food system leaves the nation at risk in riskier times.

The complete, authoritative, 9,000-word story, The FDA’s Food Failure is posted at: politico.com/interactives/2022/fda-fails-regulate-food-health-safety-hazards/

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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com

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