Magazine article Nutrition Action Healthletter

Celebrating the FDA's 100th

Magazine article Nutrition Action Healthletter

Celebrating the FDA's 100th

Article excerpt

It was 100 years ago this month that the Food and Drug Administration--then called the Bureau of Chemistry at the U.S. Department of Agriculture--was born. The agency's midwife and first director was Harvey W. Wiley, USDA's chief chemist, a spirited crusader against adulterated and mislabeled foods. Upton Sinclair's muckraking book, The Jungle, generated the public outrage that won passage of the 1906 Pure Foods and Drugs Act, which empowered the government to seize dangerous products.

The sad history of regulatory agencies is that they are established with the expectation that they will vigorously protect the public good ... but their vigor is soon eroded by pressure from regulated industries and unfriendly legislators. True to pattern, Wiley's authority was undercut almost immediately by the Secretary of Agriculture, and Wiley was forced out after six years.

In 1932, a muckraking book called 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs, written by engineers at the forerunner of Consumers Union, decried the Food and Drug Administration's inability to prevent unsafe products from reaching the market. Four decades later, James S. Turner, a Nader's Raider, wrote The Chemical Feast, which again found that the underfunded agency was far from a stalwart protector of consumer interests.

Despite the FDA's limitations, its reputation for sticking to the facts and staying above the political fray made it the "gold standard" of scientific agencies. That gold is now heavily tarnished.

Agency officials blame their inaction on budget cuts, which are certainly part of the problem. Another constraint: the FDA is under the thumb of congressional agriculture appropriations subcommittees, not health subcommittees. But even so, the agency is doing a mediocre job.

* Unsafe ingredients. The FDA considers salt and partially hydrogenated vegetable oil to be "generally recognized as safe," even though they each cause tens of thousands of fatal heart attacks and strokes each year. …

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