In a historic meeting in Aspen, Colorado, yesterday, the past six commissioners of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gathered to critique the agency in charge of ensuring the safety of what we put into and on our bodies.
At a time when $3 trillion in spending on health care is approaching 20 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product—much of that due to the exorbitant cost of medications and the consequences of poor diet—the FDA has a claim to being the most consequential agency in the country.
Immediately at the outset of the gathering (at Spotlight Health, a conference co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic), the ex-commissioners Margaret Hamburg, Jane Henney, David Kessler, Mark McClellan, Andrew von Eschenbach, and Frank Young agreed unanimously that the FDA should be an independent entity—something closer to the EPA, rather than nested under the Department of Health and Human Services (and yet, oddly, funded by the Department of Agriculture).
David Kessler, commissioner from 1990 to 1997, also made a point of calling out the thousands of food additives that have become part of our food system just because producers deem them “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). Introduced in 1958, before food technology raised many of the questions it does today, the GRAS loophole allows producers of food products to take new ingredients to market without informing the FDA. Safety decisions are left to entities selected by the producers themselves.