The Food and Drug Administration is "a slow-moving target that bleeds profusely when hit," quipped a former agency head. Now, retired FDA food economist Richard A. Williams takes shots at the agency in his new book, Fixing Food: An FDA Insider Unravels the Myths and the Solutions.
Reacting to exposés describing filthy food manufactured with inedible and unsafe ingredients, Congress first prohibited adulterated and misbranded food in interstate commerce in 1905. Since then, Congress has established expansive food safety and nutrition programs both in the Department of Agriculture and the FDA. FDA's Center for Food Safety and Nutrition is responsible for the regulation of most foods.
Williams describes his coming of age in CFSAN as a Ph.D. Since his retirement after 27 years at the FDA, he regards himself as a "recovering bureaucrat."
He says he often annoyed colleagues by questioning the traditional ways the FDA did things. When he raised critical questions regarding the scientific or economic analyses of food regulations, he was threatened with termination and, on one occasion, was actually told he was fired.
Williams offers insights into how dedicated civil servants master narrow silos of information and are wedded to their approaches, how policy decisions get made at various agency levels, and how analyses get shaped to fit political objectives. Bureaucrats' priorities are to maintain and grow regulatory turf, provide staff job security, and, only lastly, enhance food safety and nutrition.
According to Williams, CFSAN programs are more aspirational than effective in meeting their public health objectives. The bureaucrats are reluctant to discard poorly performing programs when they benefit the self-interest of the agency, regardless of unnecessary costs or marginal benefit to the public. His examples include:
- The ubiquitous, highly prescriptive food formulas or "standards of identity," that FDA has codified for many prepared and packaged foods, a program that began in 1938. Williams views them as outdated, excessively rigid, and unnecessarily costly. But the FDA staff say that without them, there would be chaos.
- Evidence that FDA's inexorably increasing budgets have not led to corresponding gains in the reduction of foodborne illnesses.
- The reluctance of FDA to accept responsibility for the ineffectiveness of its policies.
- The excessive rigidity of FDA's seafood Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point regulation, which "would cost the same amount of money whether you were a large or a small firm" and, thereby, favors larger companies.
- Coercion of Williams to exaggerate benefits for a proposed seafood safety rule in order for it to show benefits that clearly outweighed the costs, contrary to his assessment. His boss said, "I've been talking to the deputy, and she says if you aren't willing to change the analysis, then you shouldn't come back to work on Monday."
- The questionable benefits of the "nutritional panel" required on food packaging: Williams noted that the vast majority of the population pay little attention to it — by not avoiding high calorie foods that contribute to obesity, for example.
Williams sees promise from the anticipated improved quality, availability, and safety of new foods from innovative technologies applied to plants and microorganisms. He believes they will produce safer foods without relying on regulatory approaches that have become outdated.
To provide the solutions promised by the title of his book, Williams could have included a detailed analysis and recommendations for improving food safety and nutrition. It should begin with an overview of what are the proper roles of the federal government and those of state and local governments. It would need to identify America's critical food safety and nutrition objectives and how the federal, state, and local government and the private sector can best work together to achieve them.
Finally, no serious discussion of U.S. food regulation would be complete without consideration of a single U.S. food agency to eliminate duplication and to make rational national policy more consistent. Proponents of this reform have included the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Democrats led by New York Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, and Republicans led by then-president Donald Trump.
Williams' book offers a first installment of what could be the beginning of a very useful analysis of and recommendations for improving federal food safety and nutrition efforts for people.
John Cohrssen is an attorney who has served in many government posts in both the executive and legislative branches of government, including as counsel for the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Henry Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology.