Posted by Linda Bonvie
October 14, 2014
By BILL BONVIE
(Bill Bonvie is the author of Repeat Offenders, a newly released collection of 50 previously published essays, one of which,“Industry in the FDA’s corner,” served as the basis for this blog.)
If you’ve ever wondered why the Food and Drug Administration continues to allow so many ingredients that may be hazardous to our health to continue to be used in food products, at least part of the answer might lie in an unpublicized relationship that exists between the regulatory agency and many of those it regulates.
And I’m not just engaging in mere speculation when I say that. I’m talking about an actual alliance dedicated to making sure the FDA gets a sufficient share of the fiscal pie.
Perhaps you’ve never heard of the “Alliance for a Stronger FDA.” Most people in this country probably haven’t. In fact, I myself hadn’t until three-and-a-half years ago when, in the course of an Internet search, I accidentally stumbled on the website for this organization, whose goals are to assure that the FDA has “sufficient funds and resources to protect patients and consumers” and to “maintain public confidence and trust” in the agency.
And I must admit I was quite taken back to find that its membership included not only former FDA directors and Health and Human Services secretaries, along with dozens of nonprofits, but a number of trade associations and companies representing the very industries the FDA is supposed to be monitoring – a situation that’s still pretty much the same as it was then.
Among those trade associations currently listed on the membership roster are the American Bakers Association, the American Frozen Food Institute, the American Spice Trade Association, the Independent Bakers Association, the National Fisheries Institute, the Pet Food Institute, the Produce Marketing Association, the Snack Food Association, and the Biotechnology Industry Organization. (It also originally included the Grocery Manufacturers Association, but that’s no longer listed.) As for the member companies, they read pretty much like a who’s who of the pharmaceutical industry.
But then, that’s completely in accord with the Alliance’s grand design, which is to encourage membership from “a broad spectrum of organizations that are affected or regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration” – including “trade associations that represent industries regulated by the FDA.”
Finding the group’s website (http://strengthenFDA.org) made me wonder exactly what would motivate such support for a regulatory body by those it’s intended to oversee. My curiosity resulted in a phone interview I was able to get with Steve Grossman, who served as the Alliance’s deputy executive director (and still does).
“All FDA stakeholders want a strong, consistent, predictable deadline-meeting FDA,” explained Grossman, whose background includes having served as deputy assistant secretary for health under the Reagan Administration. “Everybody who is overseen by the FDA benefits when the agency is seen as strong and competent and a gold standard for the world.”
While Grossman acknowledged that “on any given day, every one of these companies has a complaint about something the FDA is doing,” still “they understand that their concerns won’t be made better by the agency’s having fewer resources,” including staff. One reason, he noted, is that a regulatory body that lacks people qualified to “investigate the science and run the lab tests” is prone to “make the most conservative decisions because it doesn’t want to do anything wrong.” Another is that U.S. industries export a lot of products, which makes it especially important to have a “strong FDA that’s recognized worldwide as being a leader in science and regulation.”
I also asked Grossman about the ‘revolving door’ that has allowed FDA officials to either go to or come from regulated industries. He responded that the Alliance is narrowly focused on making sure the FDA isn’t starved for funds and does not involve itself in staffing issues.
The Alliance’s membership roster, however, was a source of some concern to Jim Turner, board chair of Citizens for Health, consumer advocate attorney and author of “The Chemical Feast,” the Nader Study Group report on food protection and the FDA, whom I contacted after speaking with Grossman. “It always makes me nervous,” he responded, “when I see a private organization with influential former government officials as members working together with regulated companies to ‘strengthen’ the power of the regulating agency that controls their marketing rules.”
Not that there’s any proof such memberships unduly influence any of the FDA’s actions – or, for that matter, its hesitancy to take them, as in the case of its proposed phase-out of artery-clogging partially hydrogenated oil which seems to have been put on hold after being denounced by various food industry spokespersons.
But they don’t especially help, either when it comes to the business of maintaining “public confidence and trust” in the FDA, or of cementing its reputation as “a gold standard for the world.”
Repeat Offenders is now available in paperback or Ebook editions at Barnes and Noble.