Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Why Doesn't the FDA Do More?

By Brendan DenvirPublished April 25, 2014

We can only speculate as to what is behind the FDA's consistent inability to take action.

By Brendan Denvir, 04/25/2014

             The FDA has caught a lot of flack in recent years regarding its stance (or lack there of) on genetically modified foods. Critics of the organization are calling for regulatory action to be taken, starting with the establishment of a food labeling system that distinguishes GMO foods from non-GMO foods — currently no such system exists in the U.S. While I know very little about GMOs, I recognize that this is no doubt a worthwhile cause. The development of GMOs has saved millions of lives but the health implications of long-term exposure to such organisms (especially when put in the hands of profit-hungry food corporations) is unknown and consumers have every right to know if the ingredients in their favorite foods are being genetically manipulated. My question is: what's the next step? That is, what comes after the establishment of a labeling system?

            An FDA official would say no. He/she would explain that the FDA is going to conduct a thorough, ongoing analysis of the health effects of GMOs, incorporating all relevant and legitimate scientific evidence, before making a decision regarding the legality of GMO use. To this I would sigh and acknowledge the official, perhaps sarcastically,  

                                                                                       with an "Okay!" Because deep down I know that nothing will ever come out of the FDA's GMO investigation.

            While this may sound cynical (it does), it is still a fair prediction given the FDA's recent regulatory history. Let's take a look at a case study. Salt. There exists a well-known association between high salt intake and hypertension (high blood pressure). Hypertension is a known predictor of cardiovascular disease (a.k.a. the number one killer in the U.S.) as well as heart attacks, strokes, and diabetes. The average American eats almost 50 percent more salt than is recommended daily (3,300 mg consumed per day vs. 2,300 mg recommended). This high intake is not a result of eaters abusing their table salt — about 90 percent of salt consumed is already present in the foods we eat. Food companies use salt, often times in excess, for purposes of taste, texture and preservation. All of this begs the question, ‘so how does the FDA regulate salt content in foods?' Answer: they don't.

           On top of the overwhelming evidence that salt is a major cause of America's number one health issue, there's this: In 2001, British Food Standards Agency commenced an initiative to reduce salt levels in processed foods. They did so by dividing processed foods into different categories and setting maximum salt levels for each category. Since 2001, sodium consumption in Britain has fallen by 15 percent, hypertension has fallen precipitously and deaths from heart attacks and strokes have dropped 40 and 42 percent, respectively. This British public health success story should serve as a perfect template on which the FDA can launch an effective, widespread food processing regulation that improves the lives of millions. But, instead, it's just more "evidence" that they will consider in their ongoing investigation on salt's health effects.

           What is behind the FDA's lack of initiative? It could be "persuasive" lobbyists from the food industry or, maybe, a lack of authoritative power or even just plain incompetence. We do not know, but there is a clear takeaway message to you anti-GMOers: raising awareness, even generating substantial evidence, is not going to be enough to instigate the strict GMO regulations that you are looking for. The FDA, as a regulatory body, has failed again and again to take necessary action in cases similar to the one of GMOs. This doesn't mean that you stop fighting the good fight. Continue to educate both yourself and others, continue to explore both sides of the GMO debate, and continue to press for whatever regulations you feel are necessary. Just know that deeper structural changes in the government's regulatory bodies are needed to make progress for your cause.