The State of the FDA—January 2012

FDA is the only federal agency that touches the lives of every American several times every day. It’s remarkably broad mandate includes all medical products and 80% of the nation’s food supply, plus countless other products. Despite this, when the President delivers his State of the Union (SOTU) address to Congress this week, it is unlikely that FDA will rate a mention.

FDA Matters will instead provide its second annual “State of the FDA.” As reflected in last week’s column, FDA did well in 2011, but one year’s progress does not change the continued precarious state of the FDA. Here is our analysis:

Strengths: FDA’s most important strength is the dedication of the agency’s staff and the leadership of Commissioner Hamburg’s team. In the current environment, their efforts are invisible to the public they serve and largely unappreciated. If safe foods and safe and effective medications are important to you, say “thank you” to the FDA staff that make it possible.

The agency’s independence is another key strength of the FDA. At the moment, many FDA observers don’t see it that way, viewing the HHS Secretary’s decision to overrule FDA on Plan B as evidence that the agency is weak and dependent. However, Plan B is a ‘one-of-a –kind” controversy, presenting uniquely difficult and combustible issues that aren’t present in 99.9 percent of FDA’s decisions. If you look at the totality of FDA actions, the agency is remarkably independent from HHS and the White House. Rather than a weakness, this is one of the agency’s strengths.

Weaknesses: Despite a number of recent, laudable efforts at improvement, the FDA is still disorganized and largely ineffective in communicating its messages to the public, media, stakeholders and Congress. Notably, an analysis published in the journal, Medical Care, last week concluded that: although some [FDA] communication efforts had a strong and immediate effect, many had little or no impact on drug use or health behaviors and several had unintended consequences.

FDA’s information technology (IT) systems continue to be grossly inadequate for an agency with such large, far-flung and complex responsibilities. Some progress has been made with analytic data bases, such as the Sentinel program to track post-market safety, and with data bases that improve the flow of information within the agency and between field and headquarters. The October 2011 appointment of a new chief information officer with industry experience is a hopeful sign.

Opportunities: The promise of science has never been brighter. And Dr. Hamburg, to her credit, has made it a priority to improve the agency’s scientific bench strength—better credentials, better training and better tools.

This provides FDA and the medical products industries with the opportunity to forge a new “social contract” with regard to scientific standards and product approvals. FDA must commit to becoming less formalistic and bureaucratic in its dealings with companies. It must demonstrate (not just accept) that advancing medical innovation is an integral part of the FDA’s role in promoting public health. In turn, industry needs to accept that “science, fairly evaluated within predictable guidelines,” is an appropriate expectation as opposed to a system based on short-cuts to market and ill-defined, “leap of faith” assumptions about safety and efficacy. In addition, industry bashing of FDA needs to end. It is counterproductive to everyone’s interests.

Equally promising is the opportunity to significantly upgrade the safety of the American food supply. Even with the devotion of FDA staff to this cause, we are lucky that the reported levels of foodborne disease and product adulteration are not higher. The year-old Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is, by general agreement, a blueprint for moving to a new level, one where a safer food supply reflects smart decisions.

Threats: The largest threat to FDA is inadequate funding. As science has become more complex, industry more global and information more integral to every human interaction, FDA oversees a rapidly expanding portfolio of products and responsibilities. Even without the threat of budget cuts facing all federal agencies, it would be hard to grow the FDA budget enough to stay ahead.

A related threat is the potential for massive expansion of FDA’s unfunded mandates during Congressional reauthorization of the drug and medical device user fee programs. FDA is almost certain to be given new (and needed) authorityfor drug import inspections and drug shortages. In addition, Congress will consider and most likely pass a dozen or more other new programs or significant changes in FDA regulation. FDA will almost certainly have to implement these new requirements without additional appropriations.

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adapted and republished with permission by FDA Matters, a weekly blog covering FDA policy and regulation

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