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Warning: Congress May Be Hazardous to Your Health

By Chuck Muth

If only we could live on the hot air and posturing of our elected officials. That would eliminate our reliance on food and, with luck, our need for prescription drugs as well. But, alas, Americans are standard-issue mortals, and our intake requirements are pretty well set in stone.

Since 1906 we’ve entrusted Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to ensure the safety of our vital food and drugs. Foolishly, we’ve also entrusted Congress and successive administrations to provide appropriate oversight and management of the agency. Now, after a century of Washington-style bureaucracy-building, America is stuck with an FDA that’s unequivocally incapable of safeguarding either our food or our drugs.

This isn’t just some uninformed opinion. The past year’s flood of news stories about fatal food contamination – including spinach and peanut butter - are there for all to see. But it’s also the official finding of the FDA’s own blue-ribbon advisory group, the Science Board, which recently issued a damning report titled “FDA Science & Mission At Risk.”

The report notes that “the Agency suffers from serious scientific deficiencies and is not positioned to meet current or emerging regulatory responsibilities.” Gail Cassel, a co-author of the report, said, "The wheels are coming off. In fact, I would say they're off. They're already off."

In 1990, the report says, Congress added pre-market approval for disease prevention and nutrient descriptor claims for food products. And in 1994 it added pre-market review for newly marketed dietary supplements. This sort of mission creep “has made it increasingly impossible for FDA to maintain its historic public health mission.”

Indeed, the litany of FDA deficiencies is breathtaking in scope: Inadequate inspection of manufacturers, a “badly broken” food import system, a food supply “that grows riskier each year”, a “dearth” of scientists trained in emerging technologies, an “obsolete” information-technology system and more. Warnings of the potential collapse of the FDA have been around for years and the FDA’s own Science Board says the crises predicted earlier “are now realities, and American lives are at risk.”

When a $2 billion-a-year federal agency crashes and burns, it’s fair to ask, “Who’s at fault?”

Beyond the bureaucrats themselves, responsibility lies with Congress and the many administrations who have failed to hold legislators in check. The new FDA Science Board report underscores the damage done by decades of expanding regulatory mandates by Congress with very little oversight - just the sort of irresponsible headline-making legislative action which plays well among constituents but fatally undermines the agency’s ability to fulfill its core mission.

The critical question today is: Will this startling analysis have any affect on Congress?

We’ll know soon enough. The House Energy & Commerce Committee will soon vote on H.R. 1108, a bill which could well put the final nail in the FDA’s coffin. The bill would saddle the agency with new regulatory responsibility for the entire tobacco industry – a task which is beyond the FDA’s charter, beyond its expertise, and beyond all reason. It is unnecessary, untimely and unworthy of congressional action. All this bill does is pander to a bunch of vocal anti-tobacco zealots.

This is a moment when the Energy & Commerce Committee should step back and reconsider the wisdom of piling yet another regulatory burden onto FDA’s already full plate. Instead, it should focus on paring the agency’s agenda back to an affordable, rational and narrowly focused food and drug safety program. Either that or slap a huge warning label across the Capitol dome: “Warning: Congress May Be Hazardous to Your Health.”

Chuck Muth is president of Citizen Outreach Project, a non-profit public policy organization in Washington , D.C. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Citizen Outreach. He may be reached at chuck@citizenoutreach.com.