Breaking Up Is Hard To Do: Should FDA Be Split Into Two Independent Agencies?

I just returned from a weekend of teaching regulatory affairs to biotechnology students at Georgetown University where I tried to convince them that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is fundam

I just returned from a weekend of teaching regulatory affairs to biotechnology students at Georgetown University where I tried to convince them that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is fundamentally sound despite its near demise during the Bush administration. Even before the Bush-induced wreckage, the agency was chronically understaffed, under funded and had serious leadership and morale problems. This, coupled with two nationwide Salmonella outbreaks in the past year, several highly publicized drug recalls, and steadily declining drug approval rates has prompted its critics to propose that FDA be split into two separate agenciesone that oversees the drug industry and another that would have responsibility for cosmetic and food safety. For those of you who may not know, FDA became responsible for oversight and regulation of the food and drug industries, in addition to the drugs, after passage of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in 1938.

Drug industry advocates and longtime FDA critics contend that the agency as it exists today can no longer effectively oversee and insure the safety of American food and drug supplies. Critics argue that the history of FDA suggests that the agency focuses on medical products and only focuses on food safety when a crisis comes up. And when they occur, FDA is so distracted that it interferes with the drug review/approval process. While this is what FDA critics want you to believe, it is simply not the case. Despite its recent problems, the FDA has historically done an outstanding job when it comes to drug and food safetywhen it is funded and staffed to appropriate levels.

Unbeknownst to the American public, food borne illnesses are very common and Americans are only alerted when the outbreaks reach a certain size. While the recent Salmonella outbreaks were larger in scope and breadth than past outbreaks, they were not extraordinary. However, they were extremely media worthy at the time that they were reported on. You may recall that at the time of the outbreaks, the American economy was beginning to fail and there was an inordinate amount of China, Mexico and free trade bashing going on in the US. Unfortunately, the news media decided to exploit the outbreaks to make a case that Americans ought to reduce their reliance on imported foodsa practice that was beginning to cut into the revenues of the US agriculture and food industries. Ironically, the Salmonella outbreaks might have been prevented if the production facilities (owned by American companies) were compliant with FDA mandated quality control and assurance regulations which were designed to insure food safety.

Drug industry advocates who argue that FDA ought to be split into two separate agencies have financial interests rather than safety concerns in mind. As an investment banker or VC will tell you, slow, new drug approval rates can have serious financial consequences for the companies that are developing themit can literally cost a company millions of dollars a day for every day the drug is kept off the market. Interestingly, when FDA increased its drug approval rates in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there werent many industry insiders advocating a break up of the agency. Only recently, as FDA has become more risk adverse which in turn, has caused the new drug approval rates to slow again have critics begun to call for massive organizational changes at FDA.

Like I told my biotech students over the weekend, the only mechanism by which FDA can insure food and drug safety is by conducting regular inspections of drug and food manufacturing facilities. Unfortunately, FDA hasnt been able to keep up with its mandatory inspections schedule because the agency has been under funded and poorly staffed for over a decade. Several FDA inspectors, who I talked with suggested that routine inspections of manufacturing facilities takes place every three to five years rather than every two years as required by FDA regulations. While in theory this shouldnt affect a companys ability to remain compliant with FDA regulations, in reality it does. Put simply, pharmaceutical and food companies, like most other for profit industries are incapable of policing themselves in the absence of regulatory oversight.

I m not certain that the agency needs to be split into two separate agencies to continue to insure the safety of the American drug and food supplies. What I know is the agency needs more funding and much larger numbers of trained inspectors to be successful. In my opinion, the safety of the American food and drug supplies can only be guaranteed if the companies regulated by FDA make a commitment to quality manufacturing and play by the rules sic regulations.

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