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The food regulation arm of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is slow-moving, underresourced, nontransparent, unaccountable, bureaucratic — and reluctant to anger Big Food.

That’s according to a Politico report that exposes the glaring shortcomings of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN).

While the government and the media focused on the drug-oversight role of the FDA during the COVID-19 pandemic, the part of the agency responsible for food safety was kept out of the public eye — and Americans continue to suffer the consequences, the report claims.

But problems with food oversight began long before the pandemic, according to insiders who spoke to Politico.

Proactive solutions to acute issues (such as food poisoning outbreaks) and ongoing problems (such as growing obesity in the U.S.) are lacking.

“There’s a long-running joke among FDA officials that the ‘F’ in FDA is silent,”  according to the report.

CFSAN, the FDA’s “food arm,” is responsible for tracking food-borne illness outbreaks, evaluating the safety of new ingredients and additives, monitoring manufacturing practices, and overseeing the labeling of food, supplements and cosmetics.

It also lists as part of its mission “fostering good nutrition and effective food safety practices.”

Susan T. Mayne, Ph.D., has been the director of CFSAN since 2015. According to  Politico, Mayne and the FDA’s deputy commissioner for food policy, Frank Yiannas, are engaged in “an open power struggle.”

Bureaucracy, infighting and mismanagement contribute to the agency’s glacially slow responses to both acute and long-standing safety and nutrition issues, according to the report.

Stephen Ostroff, who has held senior roles at the FDA, told Politico, “The food program is on the back burner. To me, that’s problem No. 1.”

‘People are going to die’

President Obama in 2011 signed the Food Safety Modernization Act to protect Americans from food-borne illnesses.

But outbreaks of illness caused by contaminated fruits and vegetables continue, largely due to pathogens in water used in farming.

Eleven years later, the FDA still does not have a standard in place regarding the safety of agricultural water.

“People are literally going to die because of FDA’s surrender to agriculture on pathogens and irrigation water,” the Environmental Working Group’s Scott Faber told Politico.

Meanwhile, infant deaths from contaminated baby formula recently gained attention and drew public criticism.

The Defender reported that in 2021 and early 2022, infants were exposed to powdered baby formula contaminated with the bacteria Salmonella Newport and Cronobacter sakazakii. Five babies were hospitalized and two died.

The FDA came under criticism for its slow response to the outbreak. It took nearly five months from the report of the first illness for the agency to determine the cause and issue a recall of the formula.

Before this, investigations by the groups Healthy Babies Bright Futures and the Environmental Defense Fund — both in 2017 — showed high amounts of arsenic in infant cereal and lead in baby food.

A 2021 congressional subcommittee report, “Baby Foods Are Tainted with Dangerous Levels of Arsenic, Lead, Cadmium, and Mercury,” placed the blame on baby food manufacturers and the FDA, and called for the FDA to “accelerate its proposed timelines for publishing final limits for these toxic heavy metals.”

Politico noted the report generated FDA action plans and statements, but no firm policy to limit toxins in baby foods until 2024 at the earliest.

This prompted Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, to ask, “What’s going on here? Why can’t we get our act together?”

‘Foot-dragging artists’

As an example of the FDA’s inefficiency, Politico homed in on the unhealthy amounts of sodium in the typical American diet. The FDA’s failure to regulate sodium is costing lives, the report claims.

Health officials first became concerned about excessive amounts of sodium in the American diet back in the 1980s, and the National Academy of Medicine (formerly the Institute of Medicine) advised the FDA to set mandatory sodium standards in 2010.

But it was not until 2016 that the FDA released a plan for regulating the sodium content of foods, Politico reported.

Michael Jacobson, author of “Salt Wars,” founder of the Center for Science in the Public Interest and an early advocate for regulation of sodium in packaged and restaurant foods, told Politico, “I used to say FDA stood for ‘foot-dragging artists.’”

He said the FDA is “terrified of doing anything controversial.”

Jacobson is a co-author of an article published in February in the journal Hypertension: “Delayed Finalization of Sodium Targets in the United States May Cost Over 250,000 Lives by 2031.”

Trade groups representing the bakery industry, yogurt producers, beverage makers and others look to the FDA to update guidelines on packaging and standards but are often made to wait years or decades.

“This is broken,” Michael Dykes, president and CEO of the International Dairy Foods Association, told Politico. “The public deserves better, consumers deserve better, the industry deserves better.”

“They ignore everyone. They ignore everything.”