This is the fourth in a series of seven posts about regulatory compliance priorities and enforcement trends. The first post was about the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). The second post was about the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Last week’s post was about the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC). Today’s post will be about the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Next week, on Thursday January 18, the post will be about the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). On Thursday January 25, the post will be about the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Finally, on Thursday February 1, the post will be about the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is the US regulator charged with supervising and enforcing federal laws concerning food, tobacco, dietary supplements, medications and medical treatments and devices, cosmetics, and animal and veterinary products, among other related products and devices related to public health and food safety concerns. The FDA was created in 1938 by the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which gave the FDA oversight on food, drugs, and cosmetics and now constitutes of the major bodies of federal securities law it is responsible for enforcing. Other significant statutes within the purview of the FDA – either wholly or partially, in collaboration with other federal supervisory and regulatory entities – include the Public Health Service Act (from 1944, concerning the prevention of foreign communicable diseases within the US) and the Controlled Substances Act (from 1971, creating federal US drug policy).
The food, medical, and veterinary products that fall under the regulatory purview of the FDA represent a significant proportion of the consumer goods imported into, purchased within and used in the United States, meaning that the FDA has broad reach into people’s everyday lives and therefore wide oversight duties to ensure adequate protections. Food, drugs, cosmetics, and vitamin supplements are the largest categories of consumer products regulated by the FDA. The FDA’s regulatory powers are broad in scope, including a huge array of business practices, from development, testing, and manufacturing to advertising, labeling, marketing, sales, and supply chain safety. Enforcement of standards, oversight and monitoring of practices, approval of products, and handling of violations gives the FDA a heavy footprint in its covered industries.
- Homeopathic drugs: The mandate of the FDA to regulate a variety of medicines and related treatments extends to addressing homeopathic drugs. These products are widely available to consumers but previously have been lightly regulated. Given burgeoning consumer protection concerns due to public harm from products that do not have any value as medical treatment and can in fact injure people or make them sick, the FDA is planning to take a more active role in the homeopathic drugs market. Since the 1980s, the FDA has had a policy of not using the full weight of its enforcement authority with homeopathic drugs because their impacts were thought to be so minor that they could not be dangerous. However, as more people have started using these homeopathic remedies, the risks and need for protection, especially for infants, children, and elderly people, have grown. Last year children were sickened and even died from using homeopathic teething remedies sold at CVS due to poisoning from belladonna, which the medicines contained in dangerous proportions. Testing, approval, oversight practices, or some combination of the above are apparently necessary for ensuring that these products do not hurt people, contain the ingredients they are supposed to in the amounts they should, and can provide medical benefit to support the health-related claims made by the manufacturers to consumers: FDA to target ‘potentially harmful, unproven’ homeopathic drugs under new proposal
- Cryotherapy: On a similar note, cryotherapy – immersion in a chamber cooled to as low as -132 degrees Celsius to treat inflammation and all kinds of other ailments and discomforts – has been spreading in popularity and caught the attention of the FDA. Cryotherapy is often billed as a kind of spa treatment and has won the endorsement of athletes and celebrities for its health benefits. However, the FDA has reacted skeptically to these claims, especially as people have been injured by unprofessional service providers or attempts to administer cryotherapy “treatments” to themselves. If people continue to view cryotherapy and other popular science type activities and procedures as giving them some medical or curative benefit, which seems likely, then the need for the FDA to intervene by setting standards and providing oversight will grow alongside the popularity: The spread of cryotherapy
- Opioid epidemic: The FDA is well-positioned to contribute to efforts in containing the public health emergency of opioid drug abuse. The FDA is responsible for overseeing both the number of prescriptions issued and the introduction of drugs to curb and treat addiction. Overhaul of the system in which opioids are prescribed, and the rationale behind the length of prescriptions, is in the reform jurisdiction of the FDA. This system would likely be funded by the pharmaceutical companies that make opioids, similar to what is already done to pay for other similar programs covered by the FDA’s enforcement authority. Prescription intervention as well as the expedition of new versions of drugs to treat addiction will be priorities of the FDA on its upcoming regulatory agenda: FDA plans to curb prescriptions to fight opioid epidemic
- Gene therapy: Apart from approval of drugs, the FDA is also tasked with approving medical treatments. Gene therapy has been a hot topic in bioethics for years, with questions about the use of stem or other cells from humans having dogged the technology’s development for years, but having promising treatments for genetic diseases now finally in its pipeline. The FDA recently approved the first genetic therapy for an inherited disease, a rare form of childhood blindness. The price of the approved treatment is currently astronomical, at almost $1 million, but the hope is that the FDA approval will open the door for further development that could lead to lower prices and improved benefits over a lifetime. FDA openness and speed in considering and approving these technologies will certainly have an encouraging impact on the innovation within the field and the introduction of further treatments using gene therapy and improving upon knowledge and practices around it: FDA approves first gene therapy for an inherited disease
- Food safety and recalls: Finally, the FDA’s food safety and recall programs may be an active area for reform and extended consumer protections going forward. The FDA’s broad authority for food safety inspections has been critiqued in the past for culminating in uneven enforcement efforts. Most recently, the Office of the Inspector General at the Department of Health and Human Services and the Government Accountability Office have both exposed shortcomings in the FDA’s enforcement of food safety policies. Inspections, follow-up on food safety violations, and supervision of and collaboration with state-level regulatory personnel have all been found lacking: Watchdog audits fire warning shots at the FDA’s food safety program
Addressing these deficiencies in the oversight process, and following with substantive improvement in the food recall process, has major implications for consumer safety. The recall process in particular is crucial for ensuring that any gaps from the production and distribution processes oversight that are not filled, are caught before contaminated and dangerous food and supplements are sold to consumers. However, audits have found that the recall process is not up to muster, indicating that they take way too long to kick off and that the FDA does not do enough to compel companies to cooperate with their warning letters and issue recalls: The FDA Is Still Scary Slow at Food Recalls
Be sure to check back next week for a round-up on USDA regulatory compliance.