On the day of President Obama’s inauguration, last week, I began to think about how in his first year on the job, the Food and Drug Administration is expected to make a big decision this year impacting the celiac community. It is creating standards for gluten-free labeling. Labeling food gluten-free is currently only voluntary in the United States. Even though working on this gluten-free standard doesn’t seem like it would be that big of a deal, it is. The FDA has been working on this since the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act went into effect in 2004. But in my research I’ve learned the FDA appears to not only have that on its agenda, but there are some other issues that could impact the FDA in the not-too-distant future.
There’s already a call to increase spending for the FDA. According to a Reuters article the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents food makers like General Mills (Gluten Free Rice Chex anyone?), has asked the Obama administration to consider boosting food-related spending from $585 million for fiscal year 2009 to $900 million by 2012.
The GMA argues the spending hasn’t kept up with inflation and the association’s VP Scott Faber says, “As a result, we’ve been losing scientists and inspectors and have been unable to keep pace with the growing amount of (food) imports as well as changing consumer preferences.” In a recent news interview with Steve Nissen, a candidate for the FDA job, Nissen said the agency is underfunded,
“The FDA has repeatedly said that its $2.4 [overall] billion budget is not enough to keep pace with the $1.5 trillion in goods it regulates. And in 2007, an outside panel of experts concluded that consumers’ lives are at risk because the agency is underfunded.”
Will the administration and whoever the new FDA commish is, attempt to get FDA funding increased in a sour economy? And if extra funding is approved will any of it benefit the celiac community? Only time will tell.
Combining FDA and USDA – Food Inspections
Another interesting issue that appears to be trouble for the FDA is the overlapping duties with the US Department of Agriculture. Injuryboard.com recently recommended the two agencies become one. Here’s how it quickly described the confusing way the two agencies oversee food:
“Right now, frozen cheese pizzas are inspected by the F.D.A., pepperoni pizzas by the Agriculture Department. Fresh eggs are under the jurisdiction of the F.D.A.; egg products go to Agriculture.”
It does seem a little redundant and confusing all at the same time doesn’t it? Between millions of recent cases of e.coli and salmonella poisonings, it makes you wonder who is watching over food inspections.
With more inspectors and a streamlined process could the public relations nightmare for Wellshire Farms have been avoided, presuming inspectors caught the gluten? Instead the Chicago Tribune very publicly exposed varying levels of gluten in its gluten-free products last fall, leading to outrage in the celiac community. The Center for Science in the Public Interest also supports the combining of agencies.
I mean no disrespect to the hard working employees of the FDA. I am sure they are doing the jobs they were tasked to do. However some food cases must be filled with confusion and overlapping responsibilities with the USDA.
Gluten-Free Labeling Standards
That brings us back to the gluten-free standards mentioned at the beginning of the post. The FDA just finished taking public comment on the issue which basically gives standards for companies to follow if they want to label a food product “gluten-free”. What this doesn’t do is require “gluten” to be listed as a top allergen (if there was any confusion). The celiac community has been awaiting this decision for half of this decade; and it’s already nearly 6 months overdue. We are looking forward to some resolution finally.
Let’s all hope that the new administration shows some love to celiac disease, the gluten-free diet and labeling. It may sound selfish, but I just don’t want the gluten-free awareness train to stop any time soon.
*note: There are other, potentially, more serious issues with regards to the drug division within the FDA. I did not focus my blog on this area, but if you would like to learn more:
Of course I can’t help but pass along a funny and interesting blog from the Wall Street Journal about recommending Stephen Colbert be FDA chief.