FDA a giant failure on food safety and nutrition guidance, report finds

FDA-Logo-300x167Its official title is the federal Food and Drug Administration. But taxpayers are ill-served by the $1 billion they fork over to this behemoth agency to safeguard the foods all of us must consume and to provide sound nutritional guidance in especially confusing times.

That’s a significant takeaway for readers of a new, magazine-length takedown of the FDA’s food programs by the news site Politico. It has joined ProPublica, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative site, in hammering the federal government — which divides food regulation also with the U.S. Department of Agriculture — over its sluggish and poor protection of the public.

These are not just deep digs into obscure bureaucracies, Politico reported:

“This government dysfunction has a real impact on people’s lives. The CDC estimates that more than 128,000 people 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. A recent outbreak tied to contaminated infant formula, in which at least four babies were hospitalized and two died, is a stark reminder of what’s at stake when the food safety system fails. The first hospitalization was reported to federal health officials five months before the FDA and formula-maker Abbott Nutrition finally recalled the product – in what would become the largest infant formula recall in memory. By all accounts, the country is also in the middle of a diet-related disease crisis, something that made millions of Americans even more vulnerable to severe illness and death from Covid-19. Even before the pandemic, poor diet was one of the biggest drivers of health care costs and premature death in the United States.”

Reporter Helena Bottemiller Evich also has harsh perspective on the morass with the FDA and its oversight of the nation’s foodstuffs:

“This is not your run-of-the-mill slow-churning Washington bureaucracy. FDA’s food division is so slow, it’s practically in its own league. For this story, Politico spoke with more than 50 people, including current and former FDA officials, consumer advocates and industry leaders … There is a remarkable level of consensus that the agency is simply not working. Current and former officials and industry professionals used terms like ridiculous, impossible, broken, byzantine, and a joke to describe the state of food regulation at FDA.”

Politico’s investigation is a large enough “heave” (as reporters call such pieces at another big news organization) that the editors have provided a summary of four of its key criticisms of the FDA:

  • The food division has structural and leadership problems … [T]he [important] Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the branch that handles food issues … suffers from a deep-seated culture of avoiding hard decisions and a near-paralyzing fear of picking serious fights with the food industry.
  • Congress asked FDA to regulate water to keep deadly pathogens out of produce. 11 years later, it still hasn’t … Foodborne illness outbreaks keep happening and it often takes the agency too long to respond, as more people become sick FDA made little progress on keeping toxic elements out of baby foods …
  • The FDA has had a work group focused on toxic elements in the food supply since 2017, but has taken little action, even as concerns about heavy metals and other toxic elements in baby food have been repeatedly flagged by health groups and Congress FDA has not taken timely action to help cut sodium consumption …
  • A recent study, published in the journal Hypertension, estimated that the FDA’s most recent four-year delay finalizing the targets may result in more than 250,000 unnecessary deaths over about a decade and a half

Just a reminder that ProPublica recently dug into and slammed USDA’s food oversight, reporting:

“ProPublica’s recent investigation into a nearly four-year-old salmonella outbreak found that when an antibiotic-resistant strain took hold of the chicken industry, food safety officials were powerless to stop it from sickening the public. That outbreak, which continues to this day, was yet another reminder of the shortcomings that for more than 70 years have led consumer advocates … along with government experts, members of Congress and several presidents, to call for a single food safety agency. But the idea has stalled again and again, easy to propose but all but impossible to enact.”

To its credit, ProPublica has set up an interactive database where consumers can check to “see how often salmonella was found at the plant that processed your chicken or turkey.” That site can be accessed by clicking here.

That still begs the question as to why federal officials — and not an outstanding nonprofit, independent journalistic organization — are not providing similar, accessible beneficial oversight for consumers on food safety? Really?

In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be done to them and their loved ones by defective and dangerous products, including various goods that we eat and drink.

It’s unacceptable that taxpayers expend so much money for such sprawling federal resources — at the FDA and USDA — only to know that the nation’s food safety and reliable nutritional information resources are not improving. Can there be any more basic, necessary functions of government than safeguarding what we eat and drink and ending the dizzying flows of dietary nonsense? Can we get the politics out of food safety and nutrition or at least minimize the partisan meddling? Can we also get some oversight of the ever expanding and consolidating Big Ag, which both groans about government regulation while getting so big that it throws its political cash around so freely that it increasingly is allowed to self-police itself (which it does not)?

We have much work to do to ensure that our tax dollars are spent wisely, and that they keep what we eat and drink as safe and nutritious as possible.

Patrick Malone & Associates, P.C. listed in Best Lawyers Rated by Super Lawyers Patrick A. Malone
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