The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is a lumbering, ineffectual beast. The systems set in place to regulate medical devices don’t work, rules intended to ensure good food standards are inconsistent, and the administration’s infamous bureaucracy stifles innovation. What’s more, none of this – the defective medical devices that get fast tracked to approval because manufacturers know how to play the system, the sun screen that’s taken fifteen years to be approved – is necessarily the FDA’s fault. Sometimes, things are too big to succeed. Sometimes, the idea underpinning an entire project is flawed. This is the very public secret of the FDA: As an administration, it doesn’t really make any sense.
It’s time to ask yourself this: why is the agency that regulates food also the agency that regulates surgical tools, or heart medication, or hip implants? Should pasta and Prozac be approached in even a remotely similar fashion? Can a sprawling federal agency be expected to adequately regulate the quality of your aspirin alongside the quality of your ice cream? This is the FDA’s purpose– and its problem. Food and drugs are not the same and it’s becoming increasingly obvious that they require independent government regulation.
Last month, two democratic lawmakers suggested just that – introducing legislation to create a new (and, crucially, independent) food safety agency. The introduction of the Safe Food Act of 2015 by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) is an attempt, they say, to fix the “fragmented and outdated” system of agencies that currently share responsibility for enforcing food safety laws and issuing recalls.
To be effective, rather than adding just another layer of regulation on top of the current set up, the new agency would need teeth. The proposed act would provide just this, transferring oversight of food safety inspections, recalls, food labeling and import inspections away from the USDA and FDA – while potentially freeing the agencies to focus on other matters. In an op-ed written by Sen. Durbin and Rep. Delauro, the lawmakers pointed out:
“From start to finish, the life of an egg traces the complicated web of federal agencies with food safety oversight. One agency manages the health of the hens. Another oversees the feed they eat. Yet another sets quality standards, but does not test the eggs for Salmonella. Once the egg is laid, if it is in a shell, it is the responsibility of the FDA, but if it is processed into an egg product, it is the responsibility of the Food Safety and Inspection Service. [...] Without major structural reforms and funding increases, our fragmented, uncoordinated food safety system will continue to jeopardize public health.”
The proposed law has received support from the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Consumer Federation of America.
The FDA has acknowledged its shortcomings in recent years, admitting that “intractable problems” in its approval and regulation processes have left even the agency itself frustrated at the pace of things. Congressional action has at times been reminiscent of a frustrated parent snapping at a lazy child: when the FDA left potentially lifesaving sunscreen ingredients lagging in its approval system for years, members of Congress introduced an entire law – the Sunshine Innovation Act – to streamline and quicken sunscreen approval. When passing legislation through the U.S. Congress is seen as the easy route, you know something’s gone wrong.
The FDA does a lot of good, whether it’s helping to protect the “organic” label or acting quickly to recall dangerous and defective drugs and medical devices. Still, the fact that it has to do both these things should raise alarm bells. Two entirely separate agencies – one to promote and enforce food safety and one to regulate medical supplies – would benefit U.S. consumers, and the Safe Food Act is a step in the right direction. As the Act itself states:
“The safety of the food supply of the United States is vital to the public health, to public confidence in the food supply, and to the success of the food sector of the Nation’s economy.”
And if that isn’t a good reason to ensure things improve, what is?