When Dr. David Kessler took over recently as the new head of the federal Food and Drug Administration, he inherited a budget -- $690 million -- that virtually matched that of his previous institution, the Albert Einstein Hospital in New York, where he had been chief of medicine. But there's a big difference in what those budgets must cover. Unlike a hospital, the FDA wields vast power, with its responsibility for the safety and quality of goods that make up one-quarter of the nation's gross national product. The standards set by the FDA were traditionally so respected that many other nations follow them as well.
Upholding those standards has become difficult for an agency which has suffered through a decade of cut-backs and administration hostility toward the scope of its regulatory powers. When trying to answer a routine question from Congress, Kessler discovered that the agency could not say how many regulations it had proposed in recent years -- or even what had happened to them. No wonder the FDA's credibility is suffering.
Kessler now has undertaken a program to restore some of the agency's luster. First he conducted some highly publicized enforcement actions on food manufacturers, demanding more accurate truth-in-labeling. The next step, which is about to begin, is to review those dormant regulations, along with the process of proposing, writing and issuing rules.
Surely even the most anti-regulatory ideologue recognizes the importance of providing consumers with some assurance that the foods and medicines will not present unreasonable risks to their health. Kessler's activism is overdue at the FDA.