House Republicans Move to Weaken FDA's Oversight of Contaminants in our Food

The Washington Post today reported that on Tuesday night 28 Republicans and one Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee approved an amendment to an appropriations bill that would hamstring FDA’s authority to keep toxic chemicals and contaminants out of the food supply.

The measure, introduced by Rep. Rehberg (R-MT), vaguely mandates that only “hard science” be used to justify agency rule-makings and imposes arbitrary exclusions on what the agency can consider in regulating health risks in food, medicine, cosmetics and tobacco products.   The measure is so poorly written that it’s hard to tell exactly what it means, but lawyers here believe it could also be interpreted to prevent regulatory action when pharmaceuticals are determined to cause public health risks, unless those drugs are also shown to be ineffective.

Here at NRDC we are wondering if it could be a coincidence that this attack on FDA’s oversight of medicines was adopted just a week after we filed suit against FDA for failing to protect consumers from overuse of antibiotics in livestock, which is linked to the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  As the lawsuit explains, industrial scale feedlots around the nation use massive amounts of antibiotics to promote animal growth and to compensate for unsanitary, confined living conditions. The practice breeds drug-resistant pathogens that threaten the efficacy of critical medicines for people.  FDA has recognized these risks, but failed to take regulatory action.   There is plenty of “hard science” documenting the health concerns, but the Rehberg rider would –ironically-- make it much harder for FDA to take regulatory action based on science because it tasks the agency to meet an undefined standard and precludes it from considering important pieces of information, like consumer behavior or health risks created before products reach a consumer.

The problem of antibiotic use in the livestock industry is only one of the many important public health issues under the agency’s jurisdiction that would be ensnared by the “hard science” rider.   The Rehberg amendment would also make it more difficult for the agency to force product manufacturers to remove chemicals that threaten the health of consumers—such as the hormone disruptors  triclosan and triclocarban often added to hand soaps and personal care products.   Similarly, a coalition of health associations and anti-tobacco advocates issued a press release yesterday blasting the measure, stating it would “severely limit the kind of evidence FDA could consider in regulating tobacco and other products.” 

Because FDA is charged with protecting us from health risks from food, tobacco, medicines and cosmetics, the implications of constraining its oversight of all of these products is mind boggling.    Here at NRDC we’re big supporters of hard science.  But Representative Rehberg’s rider is really just an attempt to make it harder for FDA to use science and do its job.

About the Authors

Jonathan Kaplan

Director, Food & Agriculture program

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