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Celebrating the FDA's 100th.

It was 100 years ago this month that the Food and Drug Administration--then called the Bureau of Chemistry at the U.S. Department of Agriculture--was born. The agency's midwife and first director was Harvey W. Wiley, USDA's chief chemist, a spirited crusader against adulterated and mislabeled foods. Upton Sinclair's muckraking book, The Jungle, generated the public outrage that won passage of the 1906 Pure Foods and Drugs Act, which empowered the government to seize dangerous products.

The sad history of regulatory agencies is that they are established with the expectation that they will vigorously protect the public good ... but their vigor is soon eroded by pressure from regulated industries and unfriendly legislators. True to pattern, Wiley's authority was undercut almost immediately by the Secretary of Agriculture, and Wiley was forced out after six years.

In 1932, a muckraking book called 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs, written by engineers at the forerunner of Consumers Union, decried the Food and Drug Administration's inability to prevent unsafe products from reaching the market. Four decades later, James S. Turner, a Nader's Raider, wrote The Chemical Feast, which again found that the underfunded agency was far from a stalwart protector of consumer interests.

Despite the FDA's limitations, its reputation for sticking to the facts and staying above the political fray made it the "gold standard" of scientific agencies. That gold is now heavily tarnished.

Agency officials blame their inaction on budget cuts, which are certainly part of the problem. Another constraint: the FDA is under the thumb of congressional agriculture appropriations subcommittees, not health subcommittees. But even so, the agency is doing a mediocre job.

* Unsafe ingredients. The FDA considers salt and partially hydrogenated vegetable oil to be "generally recognized as safe," even though they each cause tens of thousands of fatal heart attacks and strokes each year.

* Deceptive labels. The FDA has essentially given up policing deceptive claims on food labels. That's why countless labels tout the presence of whole grains in foods that are mostly white flour and the absence of trans fat in foods that are high in saturated fat.

* Contaminants. The FDA allows Vibrio vulnificus bacteria in Gulf Coast shellfish to kill about 20 people each year, permits the sale of fish that are highly contaminated with mercury, and fails to restrict cancer-causing acrylamide contaminants in foods.

* Allergens. The FDA fails to ban unnecessary ingredients that cause allergic reactions. Quorn, a fungus-based "health food," causes anaphylactic reactions, hives, and vomiting. But the FDA considers Quorn to be "generally recognized as safe." It also allows the use of the allergenic food coloring carmine.

* Advisors with conflicts of interest. The FDA's advisory committees are heavily populated by scientists who have financial ties to food or drug companies.

* Politics over science. Last year, the FDA overrode an advisory committee's strong recommendation to allow a "morning after pill" to be sold without a prescription. And the agency did the bidding of the food industry when it tried (unsuccessfully) to stop California from banning dangerous Gulf Coast shellfish and from putting signs at fish counters warning consumers about seafood with high mercury levels.

The FDA, with its $2 billion annual budget and 9,000 employees, is failing the American public. Let's hope that after the next election the agency regains some of its objectivity, independence, and aggressiveness.

Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D.

Executive Director

Center for Science in the Public Interest
COPYRIGHT 2006 Center for Science in the Public Interest
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Title Annotation:MEMO FROM MFJ
Author:Jacobson, Michael F.
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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