How Good (or Bad) is the FDA?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is the target of plenty of criticism. In fact, almost nobody seems to like the FDA — except maybe occasionally when they institute a recall or impose a penalty, and even then there’s almost always someone who complains that the FDA did too little, too late.

Now, I have no particular view of the FDA. I have (like everyone, probably) heard of FDA policies and decisions with which I’ve disagreed. But that doesn’t tell you much. And I’ve also read about what seem to be recurring deficiencies in their systems & programs. I’ve heard about political and corporate interference. I’ve heard complaints that the FDA just doesn’t have the teeth to do its job effectively. On the other hand, I’ve also heard arguments that the FDA is too powerful, that it interferes with the market too much (too much red tape, slowing innovation, etc.), and that, if there were no FDA, the courts would be perfectly able to deal effectively with drug companies and food producers who behave badly.

So: what is the average American citizen (or the average small business) to make of this? Of course, as a Canadian I could just as easily ask what Canadians should think of Health Canada (which is the Canadian federal agency in charge of roughly the same stuff that the FDA is in charge of in the U.S.). Pot shots aside, how good (or bad) are our federal food-and-drug agencies?

Now, the simple answer to the question in the title of this blog entry is simply this: “not good enough.” And in a sense, that is of course true. No regulatory agency is perfect. Many are far from perfect. From a food activist’s point of view, the FDA just isn’t as good as it could be at protecting our health. (And from a free-market economist’s point of view, maybe the FDA just isn’t good enough to make up for the way it impedes innovation, etc.) But that answer isn’t very illuminating. What we want is not a comparison to some imaginary ideal, but a comparison to practical possibilities.

So here’s a question I’m hoping someone has the answer to: how good (or bad) is the FDA (or your nation’s parallel agency) on a comparative international basis. Is there any way of answering that question? Has anybody tried? (And note that arguments of the form, “The FDA sucks because it did such-and-such” are pretty weak. What we’re looking for here is indications of overall performance.)

Now, here’s a suggestion of why international comparisons are useful. Most of us are pretty wrapped up in what we see as the inadequacies of our own governments and government agencies. Looking abroad can be illuminating. Lots of Americans, for example, probably think there’s a lot of corruption in the U.S. But a quick look at Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index shows that the U.S. ranks 19th out of 180 countries. Not exactly gold-metal performance, but it means that the U.S. has a level of corruption that countries like Uzbekistan and Burundi and Yemen could only dream of.

So, to ask my question in a different way, what countries (if any) have food-and-drug protection agencies that Americans should wish they had?

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
This entry was posted in FDA, health, public policy, regulation, safety. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to How Good (or Bad) is the FDA?

  1. This link was sent to me via Twitter, by @foodwoolf …

    NPR: Politics at The FDA

  2. This is a good start for an important conversation. I hope that you receive lots of insightful comments that will lead us all to a much better understanding of the FDA. I for one, have lots of questions and don’t know who best to start talking to. I look forward to reading what you find!

  3. Pingback: No Decision About GM Salmon | Biotech Ethics

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