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Positive Thinking for a Rainy Friday in the District

February 24, 2012

Every year is a struggle to achieve proper recognition of FDA’s broad mission and growing responsibilities, but we face a particularly challenging environment this year.

It is an election year. Every vote, every utterance, is a potential soundbite that can win or lose an election, a presidency or a Congressional majority. Meantime, reducing the annual federal deficit is proving substantively as well as politically difficult.

Hanging over all of this political and economic pressure for budget cuts is the mandatory sequestration (across-the-board budget cuts) that is scheduled to take place at the beginning of January 2013 … unless Congress can come up with $1.2 trillion (over 10 years) in deficit reduction before then!

So, with these gloomy thoughts … reinforced by a very rainy and dark Friday afternoon in DC … it is time to remind myself (and everyone else) why the fight for FDA is worth it.

While far from perfect, FDA embodies the types of activities that must be carried out by our national government. FDA is — or should be — right at the top of the list, alongside national defense and air traffic controllers and maybe a dozen other functions and agencies. And like every one of those, there is no backstop if the agency is not there to do its job … and Americans would immediately notice the loss.

Since the key pieces of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act were put together so long ago, it can be hard to remember why FDA was created and how much narrower and more difficult our national and personal lives would be without the agency’s work. Without FDA, consumers would not know if food products were safe and medical products were safe and effective.

But it goes much deeper than that. Last year, a thoughtful budget-cutting Hill staffer asked why we couldn’t eliminate FDA’s oversight of cosmetics. I pointed to the history — cosmetics at one point were a widespread hazard, often causing burns, disfigurement and blindness. By setting and enforcing standards, FDA levels the playing field — assuring companies that produce safe and worthwhile products that they will not be undercut (or even run out of business) by those selling substandard and even dangerous products.

There are natural threats, as well, from which we benefit from FDA’s protection. At a business luncheon, I pointed to open bowls of condiments that had been sitting at room temperature. A colleague reassured me that pathogens don’t culture in mayonnaise for at least 24 hours, but then added that the bacteria sometimes forget and show up early. FDA has safe food handling rules for a reason!

There are more than 300 million Americans. Most of them eat food at least three times a day, use consumer health products at least twice a day and take a medication or dietary supplement at least once a day. There are few other agencies that touch our lives so often or have as good a case for more money as the FDA.

The key is to keep stressing to policymakers, the media, and whoever else will listen, that budget cutting is okay if truly necessary … but first we need to be sure that our national priorities get the funding they need. And that is why we need a strong FDA with the resources to do its job well!

Note: This analysis and commentary is written by Steven Grossman, the Deputy Executive Director of the Alliance for a Stronger FDA.

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