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Imports: FDA Issues a Cry for Help

No challenge to FDA’s mission looms larger than the rapid globalization of the world markets for food, drugs, medical devices and other FDA-regulated products.  By way of making this point, on June 20, the FDA released a special report, entitled “Pathway to Global Product Safety and Quality.”  

FDA Matters read the report carefully and heard a cry for help, if not an actual primal scream.

The report provides startling statistics on the recent and future growth of imports. A decade ago, 6 million shipments of FDA-regulated goods passed through our nation’s 300 ports; this year the number will quadruple to 24 million shipments.

The impact is across all areas of FDA responsibility. Currently, 60% of fruits and vegetables and 80% of seafood consumed in the US are imported. About 80% of active ingredients found in pharmaceutical products (not finished products) originated abroad. More than 35% of the US medical equipment market is imported devices.

The world is an unsafe place. Despite that, Americans are not going to restrict themselves to seasonal and locally grown food. Nor will we limit ourselves to the drugs and devices that can be developed and manufactured using only ingredients and parts that come from within the US.

We count on FDA to be sure our foods are safe and medical products safe and effective, regardless of origin.  However, imports inspire less confidence because there are hundreds of thousands of products made under local laws and business practices. We have much to be concerned as these numbers continue to grow.  

Even with additional resources, new legal authorities, international cooperation, improved strategies, complex databases and a bunch of good luck…keeping the American people safe will require the agency to invest several times more effort than it has in the recent past.

FDA’s plan is logical and appropriate:

1) FDA, in close partnership with its foreign counterparts, will assemble global coalitions of regulators dedicated to building and strengthening the product safety net around the world.

2) With these coalitions, FDA intends to develop a global data information system and network in which regulators worldwide can regularly and proactively share real-time information and resources across markets.

3) FDA will continue to expand its capabilities in intelligence gathering and use, with an increased focus on risk analytics and thoroughly modernized IT capabilities.

4) FDA will effectively allocate agency resources based on risk, leveraging the combined efforts of government, industry, and public- and private-sector third parties.

In short, FDA’s strategy is: let’s build the food, drug, and device equivalent of Interpol, then “let’s get the bad guys before they get us.”

This seems like a good approach, but it is not enough. In a speech in April, Dr. Murray Lumpkin, Deputy Commissioner for International Programs, referred to FDA-regulated products as coming from “roughly 200 countries, using 825,000 importers through over 300 US ports-of-entry.” How do you possibly manage that?   

I can’t claim to know the answer. Significantly increased funding for import safety is essential. A larger FDA overseas force is necessary to work with other governments and set up international standards. Tougher US laws are needed. We have learned, however, that it is hard to prevent problems when one or two business owners are prepared to willfully neglect standards and heedlessly adulterate food and drug products.

Our only choice is to respect what FDA has accomplished…..and give them the support and funding (and maybe some out-of-the-box ideas) to do an even better job.


FDA’s Report on Imports: http://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/CentersOffices/OC/GlobalProductPathway/default.htm

Dr. Lumpkin’s presentation:  Viewing the world through the FDA international lens: Advancing domestic public health through international engagement. Slides from presentation given to membership of the Alliance for a Stronger FDA, April 26, 2011.


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