On January 31, the Food and Drug Administration proposed a redesign of its human nutrition program in response to several ongoing food crises affecting the public safety and health of millions of Americans.
The redesign tries to solve the leadership and funding problems identified by a panel of experts in December.
Unfortunately, the proposal does little to fix the most pressing or fundamental problems within the agency and our food safety. Only Congress has the tools to do that.
The egregious failures of food leadership at the FDA were brought to public attention in part by the recent infant formula shortage. In response to criticism of their lackluster role, the FDA designated a panel of experts to investigate the root causes of problems and recommend solutions, sparking a broader conversation about the various ways FDA’s food programs have failed recently.
Largely left out of the conversation, however, is perhaps the most compelling reason for overhauling the FDA’s — and our country’s — food safety program: its inability to address the country’s problems the crisis of chronic food-borne diseases.
More Americans 1600, die every day from chronic food diseases such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart failure and cancer than die in a year, 1,400, of microbial and chemical contaminants, the FDA and the United States Department of Agriculture also regulate. In addition, tens of millions of Americans suffer daily from illness and disability caused by these diseases. Americans were more vulnerable to COVID due to foodborne illness; found a study two-thirds of COVID-19 hospitalizations were caused by four foodborne conditions. It is also a huge drain on our personal and country’s finances. The economic cost of nutrition-related chronic diseases has been estimated in 16 trillion dollars during the period 2011-2020. We need to make acute and chronic foodborne illness a food safety priority.
Over the past decade, the US Government Accountability Office has identified both acute AND CHRONIC Foodborne disease regulatory issues in need of urgent reform. GAO has repeatedly recommended that a government-wide approach led by a single entity is needed to address fragmentation in the federal food safety regulatory and oversight system. Executive branch agencies have tried to respond from their respective silos with little impact. Although it is worrying, this is not surprising. Regulators at the FDA, USDA, and other agencies are mostly doing their best under difficult circumstances, but it is only Congress in its oversight role that can effectively examine organizational and resource issues that are holding back a program. effective food safety.
There are many causes of the FDA’s food crisis, but one root cause that remains largely unaddressed is that Congress has been reactive and rarely proactive in its food oversight and legislative responsibilities. Congress has an obligation to ensure that food-related issues are properly regulated by an accountable FDA, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the USDA. Congress laid the groundwork for the current crisis in 1940 when it added human drugs and cosmetics to the FDA’s sole food responsibilities and moved the agency from USDA to Federal Security Administration which became today’s HHS. Meat safety remained with the USDA. In the years that followed, Congress provided the USDA with the resources needed to ensure meat safety, but only provided the FDA with the resources needed for new drugs, biologics such as vaccines, medical devices, and even tobacco control programs. , leaving the food program with a growing lack of budget and leadership to do its job.
As a result, today the USDA regulates the safety of 20 percent of our food supply and receives about half of the food safety budget. The FDA regulates the safety of the remaining 80 percent of our food without the budget, laws, or leadership necessary to do so.
This current moment of increased scrutiny of the FDA’s food program is Congress’ opportunity to take action. Simply put, our food and its impact on our health have changed dramatically since the creation of the current system, and Congress must conduct an intensive bipartisan, bipartisan review, including in-depth hearings this year, on how to regulate food safety and related issues. today’s world to protect public health and safety and who should be in charge.
We have a USDA secretary who is able to do his job in large part because he is a responsible member of the Cabinet. The same is not true of the FDA, whose leaders must navigate layers of bureaucracy to reach their cabinet members, and whose attention is currently largely focused on drug approvals, the care of to the sick and smoking – not to food. Without prejudice to the outcome of a full review by Congress to resolve the problem, options that Congress may consider include improved coordination and cooperation among federal agencies with increased authority to address hunger, nutrition, and healthestablishing an independent food agency, or merger of FDA’s food program into USDA’s, creating a food, nutrition and health mission area. At the very least, Congress must address the leadership and resource gaps in the operation of our food safety agencies and give it the priority it deserves.
What is clear is that Congress must act now. We recognize that these problems exist because they are difficult to solve, including terrain concerns that often paralyze government action. But Congress has effectively addressed comparable structural problems before and must do so now. It can begin this year by providing the necessary oversight, authority and budget. The president can help by proposing solutions in his March 9 budget.
We need food that is safe, tasty and affordable and that promotes optimal health and well-being. This is among the most essential roles of Congress and government. Our lives literally depend on it.
Senator William H. Frist, MD is a heart and lung transplant surgeon and former Majority Leader of the United States Senate, representing Tennessee in the US Senate from 1995 to 2007. He currently serves as Chairman of the Global Board of The Nature Conservancy, the largest conservation organization in the world. Dan Glickman is the former Secretary of Agriculture from 1995 to 2001 and a member of Congress from 1977 to 1995. Jerold Mande is an Assistant Professor of Nutrition at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and former Senior Advisor to the Commissioner of the FDA and Deputy Under Secretary at the US Department of Agriculture and CEO of Nourish Science.
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