The Obama administration came to Washington pledging to reinstate competence across all areas of government. Among their greatest challenges will be to restore the Food and Drug Administration's tattered reputation. The deservedly maligned agency has repeatedly failed to protect Americans, especially children, from illness and death related to contaminated foods.
Over the last eight years we have seen a kind of "Katrina on your plate," as the inaction of the under-funded and often incompetent FDA and its feckless leadership led to thousands of unnecessary illnesses and deaths. It seemed that every few weeks, the FDA found itself feverishly attempting to hustle a late response to meet yet another food safety emergency. And the Obama administration has already had its introduction to food emergencies. Earlier this year, food made with tainted peanut butter killed at least nine people and may have sickened as many as 20,000 across 43 states. Disturbingly, this outbreak had a disproportionate impact on America's most vulnerable. According to the Centers for Disease Control, half of those affected were children younger than 16 years-old; 21% were under five. U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors knew there might have been a problem, but neither USDA nor FDA took decisive action.
Children and infants at risk is a common theme in these FDA food failures. Last November the FDA reported that melamine -- which can cause kidney and bladder stones, kidney failure and death -- had been found in baby formula. Instead of immediately informing the public of its findings, the agency held a conference call with manufacturers. Recently, two studies proved that mercury can be found in high-fructose corn syrup, an ingredient in the cereals, candies, ice cream and soft drinks kids love. News reports revealed that FDA has known this for several years, but quashed the information.
It isn't just traditional foods which cause concern; new food products are continually getting FDA approval with no independent studies conducted on potential long-term risks. One such group of products is derived from crops that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) - food crops that have been engineered to survive massive applications of weed killing chemicals. FDA's own scientists pointed out that these foods could be toxic, cause new allergies; could be less nutritious; and can harm human immune systems. Yet they were allowed on the market without labeling or mandatory testing. Clearly, the FDA seems to have never heard of the precautionary principle and, in service to the interests of a few chemical companies like Monsanto, put the entire eating public at risk.
Again, FDA's failures cause real suffering. One in six Americans suffer from food poisoning each year with many thousands perishing from it. Many more people have died in this country over the last decade from our lack of food security than from our lack of homeland security.
President Obama has spoken eloquently about the food safety crisis and he has appointed a working group made up of the various federal agencies involved in food safety and security. Congress is also looking at legislation that would bolster FDA's ability to recall dangerous food and update its inspection capacity. A good start: but not enough.
Given the unique importance of the food safety issue, we need to break up the Food and Drug Administration so that we are served by an agency solely devoted to the protection of our food supply. In the past, and even with Obama's new appointment of Margaret A. Hamburg as FDA Commissioner, we have seen the leadership of the agency chosen from the ranks of those who have focused mainly on drugs, while regulation of food safety consistently fell by the wayside. The results in death, injury and disease speak for themselves.
To be effective, this new, dedicated agency should be transparent in its investigation and decision making; should be guided by the precautionary principle when deciding whether to allow new chemicals or technologies into the foods we eat; and should be responsive to the needs of the public. After all, the FDA was created to serve the people, not the large agribusiness corporations which too often control the food agenda. In the end it's the Federal government's most basic function to protect citizens from harm, especially those that are most at risk and least able to defend themselves.