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Reading the carmine leaves.

In 1993, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (the nonprofit publisher of Nutrition Action Healthletter) first urged the Food and Drug Administration to require food companies to list heart-damaging trans fat on their labels. In 2003, the FDA said it would require trans on food labels by 2006. This January, mandatory trans-fat labeling arrived. Time lag: 13 years.

In 1997, CSPI petitioned the FDA to set rules for egg producers that would prevent contamination of their eggs with Salmonella bacteria. The FDA proposed regulations in 2004, but still hasn't finalized them. Time lag: 9 years and counting.

In 1998, CSPI petitioned the FDA to require food labels to disclose the presence of a natural coloring called carmine (it's derived from red beetles), which causes occasional allergic reactions. While the FDA issued a proposed rule earlier this year, any final rule likely wouldn't take effect before 2009. Time lag: at least 11 years.

In each case, it took the reds a decade or more to protect the public. Meanwhile, thousands of people died unnecessarily every year of heart disease from eating trans fat, thousands suffered unnecessary foodborne illnesses from contaminated eggs, and thousands got hives or life-threatening anaphylactic allergic reactions from eating foods with carmine. (Companies always were allowed to list carmine if they wanted to; the FDA was only trying to make it mandatory.)

There's something seriously wrong when simple changes that can save lives take years to achieve.

Why is the FDA so slow?

The agency was never speedy, but since the Reagan Revolution, it has slowed to a crawl. During the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan campaigned against "big government" and tried to axe funding and authority for meddling agencies like the FDA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Federal Trade Commission.

Congress did its bit by slashing money for the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, which has meant cuts for staff other than inspectors. At the same time, legislators have continued to pile on more responsibilities. New issues--genetically engineered foods and dangerous dietary supplements, for example--have filled the FDA's cup well beyond the rim.

What's more, before the agency can issue a rule, it has to conduct time-consuming and expensive consumer surveys and cost-benefit analyses. And if a final rule is different from a proposed rule, the FDA has to conduct new analyses.

At the same time, companies and trade associations have gotten more brazen. They mount concerted opposition to practically every proposed change. They cover the FDA, Congress, and the Administration like a blanket. And they make sure that bureaucrats know what to do to avoid lawsuits and legislators know what to do to keep campaign contributions flowing.

Sitting atop the regulatory roadblock is the Bush White House, which has put out the word that "good regulation is no regulation." FDA officials know that proposals for bold (or even modest) measures almost certainly would be vetoed "upstairs" at the FDA. Or, if not there, at the Department of Health and Human Services. Or, if not there, at the White House's Office of Management and Budget. So why bother trying?

Despite the oppressive atmosphere inside the Beltway, CSPI is continuing to push for laws and regulations to protect the public's health. And we're turning to the courts to stop deceptive labeling, marketing of junk foods to children, and unsafe ingredients. At least the courts appear more receptive to sound arguments than Congress or regulatory agencies that put ideology above lives.

Stay tuned.

Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D. Executive Director Center for Science in the Public Interest
COPYRIGHT 2006 Center for Science in the Public Interest
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:MEMO FROM MFJ; Center for Science in the Public Interest
Author:Jacobson, Michael F.
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2006
Words:593
Previous Article:Behind the headlines.
Next Article:The changing American diet: a report card.
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