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Bisphenol A becomes test of leadership for FDA

By Rory Harrington , 14-Dec-2009

Each day the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) dithers in delivering its verdict on the safety of bisphenol A (BPA), its authority is diminished and its credibility wanes.

The hold-up is eroding its ability to lead by failing to give industry and consumers what they are crying out for – a timely, impartial and science-based guide to what is safe and what is not.

But why is it so significant that the FDA decision, promised for 30 November, has yet to be published? After all, it’s only two weeks late. Does it matter?

Yes, it does. BPA has become a litmus test of the FDA’s leadership.

When Dr Margaret Hamburg swept into the agency in May she looked and sounded every inch the ferocious new broom determined to turn the organisation around. After declaring the FDA had failed in its handling of the nationwide outbreak of salmonella caused by contaminated peanuts, observers were further heartened when she trained her laser sights on bisphenol A, the chemical used in polycarbonate baby bottles and food can linings that has been linked to cancer, diabetes and heart problems.

As rock group The Who would say ‘Meet the new boss’. And unlike the veteran singers’ next line, ‘Same as the old boss’, Hamburg and the organisation she headed suddenly seemed very different.

The straight-talking Commissioner vowed to sort out the thorny question of BPA in weeks not months – garnering almost universal praise that here at last was somebody who not only understood the importance of the issue but was prepared to bang some heads together to solve the problem. It was a bold declaration designed to challenge the perception of a food safety body too readily influenced by the industries it was charged with regulating.

And in a world where perception can be reality, it could also explain why BPA has so far failed to trigger the same level of anxiety in Europe. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) certainly has its critics but few would dispute the organisation is impartial and not afraid to ruffle industry feathers if that is where the evidence leads. While the FDA has wrestled with its lack of credibility, EFSA has been able to calmly assert that it sees no need to review its stance on BPA. It has provided a clear and consistent position that inspires consumer confidence and stability for industry.

The FDA move was also supposed to assuage the genuine fears of US consumers desperate to know they weren’t inadvertently harming themselves or their families. It was to offer much-need clarity to allow industry to formulate longer-term packaging strategies. This enthusiasm was barely dented when the agency announced more than few weeks later its verdict would not be forthcoming until after Thanksgiving.

That self-imposed deadline has not only passed but done so without a word of explanation from the FDA for the delay or any indication of when the report will be published.

Repeated requests for clarification have been met with the robotic response the report is being finalised and will be delivered soon. Before Christmas? – hopefully; by the end of the year? – we expect so; Why the delay? - No comment, is all the FDA is prepared to say.

But why after raising expectations has the agency not only failed to meet its own deadline that represented its first serious test, but also refused to discuss the reasons for this?

If it had said more time was needed to review the wealth of conflicting scientific evidence, industry and the public could have respected its honesty. Its diligence could have been applauded had it declared the issue was important enough to take the extra weeks or months to get it absolutely right.

But by not fulfilling its pledge and then refusing to communicate the agency is at risk of compounding the impression of incompetence with the appearance of arrogance. And that is never a good combination.

Leadership is about many things; keeping your promises, transparency, openness and, most importantly, credibility and trust. It’s time the FDA showed some leadership. Bold statements of intent that are not backed up by actions damage rather than build credibility. If the agency doesn’t act soon it really will be a case of ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’. And we won’t get fooled again.

Rory Harrington is Senior Reporter on FoodProductionDaily.com with seven years experience as a journalist. He has no opinion on the safety of BPA but believes food safety must be guided by credible, science-based evidence. If you would like to comment on this article, contact Rory.Harrington ‘at ‘ decisionnews.com.

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