Thursday, April 7, 2011

Your Own Personal FDA

The U.S. government shutdown expected tomorrow includes the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA will not be checking to see that your food is safe except in an emergency situation — i.e., after large numbers of people have already gotten sick in a pattern that obviously points to a food source. This is an even more limited role than it appears on the surface, as many of the people who track down these patterns will also not be on the job. As for drugs, the FDA likely won’t have any enforcement muscle at all for as long as the shutdown lasts. The food and drug factories know this, and they know they can quietly do whatever they please for the duration of the government shutdown. This means it is up to you to ensure the safety of the food and drugs you and your family use for as long as the government shutdown lasts.

And actually, even when everything is working at the FDA, it can’t do as much as we might imagine to make food or drugs safe. We are relying on the good will of the factories to use the ingredients they say they are using and make the products they say they are making. There are rarely any outside tests or audits to hold them accountable, and even inspections are a hit-or-miss affair.

But now, assuming the government does shut down Friday as most observers expect, there are no inspections, no enforcement actions — in effect, no rules at all about food or drug products as long as large numbers of people don’t get violently ill. The safety of the food you eat and any drugs you take is your responsibility now. Think of yourself as the head of your own personal Food and Drug Administration.

It’s enough to make a person start asking questions, questions like, “Do I even know where my food comes from? How do I know it’s been handled properly? What do I need to do to minimize my risks?” These are good questions to ask in any case, but more important than usual now that the government is no longer looking out for you.