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FDA is broken, needs overhaul, agency's critics say

WASHINGTON — Tainted peanuts. Unsterilized syringes. Salmonella in Mexican chili peppers. A contaminated blood thinner from China that sent patients into life-threatening shock.

Every few months, the Food and Drug Administration goes into fire-brigade mode, rushing to get control over another safety crisis. The agency that regulates products worth 25 cents of every dollar spent by U.S. consumers seems overwhelmed by its own mission.

Some say the FDA is broken, and others want to break it up — by moving food safety to a new office.

"You've got an agency that quite frankly is either non-functional, or dysfunctional, or maybe all of the above," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who as the longest serving member of the House has investigated many agencies, including the FDA.

"Bet yourself a new hat or a fine dinner that you are going to have a scandal a month," Dingell added. "They are running around like a lot of headless chickens."

Others, even some critics, see tentative improvements. Many defenders acknowledge the FDA is struggling.

"'Broken' is the kind of word that's sort of a fighting word," said Dr. Frank Torti, the cancer researcher serving as acting FDA commissioner. "We have recognized for a long time that more is needed. Because of a lack of (legal) authorities and inadequate resources, it's really hard to do the job."

Restoring the FDA's reputation will be a major challenge for an Obama administration that strode into town promising competent government.

The decline didn't happen overnight. There's no single, simple cause. In 2007, an independent group of science advisers concluded that the FDA was in danger of failing in its mission. "American lives are at risk," said their report. It wasn't the first alarm.

As the pharmaceutical and food industries went global in recent years, the FDA fell behind on inspections. Its legal powers failed to keep up with fast-changing industries. Its own scientists said it grew too cozy with drug companies and tuned out signals of safety problems.

Money for research grew scarce. The agency struggled to answer such seemingly simple questions as how far from a cow pasture a farmer should plant his spinach patch to keep out bad germs. Internal computer systems were allowed to decay, although they are essential to monitoring drug safety trends or blocking shady imports.

The FDA drifted. During the Bush administration, it went long periods without a permanent commissioner who could be an advocate before Congress. Lawmakers piled new responsibilities on the agency, often without the funds to carry them out.

This past year's safety problems — homegrown and imported — illustrate the FDA's weakness.

Last winter, heparin from China contaminated by a mysterious ingredient prompted an international recall. The blood thinner, used to treat people during heart surgery and kidney dialysis, was triggering life-threatening allergic reactions.

Summer brought a salmonella outbreak blamed first on tomatoes, and later on hot peppers as well.

This winter, it was salmonella again, in peanut products. A small company's apparent disregard for basic sanitation led to the recall of more than 2,800 foods that used its ingredients.

More than 2,100 people were sickened in these incidents. At least nine deaths have been blamed on tainted peanuts alone.

Last week, another problem surfaced. Federal prosecutors in North Carolina obtained guilty pleas from two employees of AM2PAT, a company that manufactured syringes in unsterile conditions and covered it up with phony paperwork.

Prosecutors say hundreds of patients were sickened and five died. The FBI is looking for the company's owner, who might have fled the country.

Different products were involved in the incidents, but some of the same FDA shortcomings: inspections, legal authority and technology.

The pharmaceutical plant in China that made the heparin was never inspected by the FDA, partly because the agency confused its name with a similar name belonging to another factory.

The tomato outbreak last summer underscored other kinds of gaps. Produce companies are not required to have a food safety plan. And the FDA lacks legal authority to require a system for tracing foods back to the farm. Investigators had to sift through piles of paper records as losses mounted for tomato growers. Dingell said the FDA looked like the Keystone Kops.

In the peanut butter outbreak, the FDA has been slowed because of the length of time it takes to identify positively a strain of salmonella. In the meantime, the agency had no authority to order a food recall.

Said Caroline Smith De Waal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest: "The FDA has been trying to do so much with so little for so long that they really have lost the vision of what would make an effective food safety program."