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The Food and Drug Administration

Don't Eat Without It

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There is little else in life we need to be more certain about than the things we place in our bodies: the food that sustains us, the food of the animals we consume, the drugs that heal us, and the medical devices that prolong and improve our lives. The Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, is the agency that ensures the safety of the things that keep us going.

FDA Past and Present
The FDA is the oldest consumer-protection agency in the nation. It was established in 1906 from existing governmental agencies by the Food and Drug Act, which gave the agency its regulatory power. Previously called the Division of Chemistry, the Bureau of Chemistry, and the Food, Drug and Insecticide Administration, the agency's first, primary responsibility was to ensure the safety and purity of food sold to Americans.

Today, the FDA regulates the labeling, cleanliness and purity of all foods except meat and poultry (which are regulated by the Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service). It ensures the safety of the nation's blood supply and other biologics, such as vaccines and transplant tissue. Drugs must be tested, manufactured and labeled according to FDA standards before they can be sold or prescribed. Medical devices such as pacemakers, contact lenses, hearing aids and breast implants are regulated by the FDA.

X-ray machines, CT scanners, mammography scanners and ultrasound equipment also fall under FDA oversight. So do cosmetics. And the FDA takes care of our livestock and pets by ensuring the safety of livestock feed, pet food, and veterinary drugs and devices.

Also See: Real Teeth for FDA's Food Safety Program

Organization of the FDA
The FDA, a division of the Cabinet level U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is organized into eight offices:

  • Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research
  • Center for Devices and Radiological Health
  • Center for Drug Evaluation and Research
  • Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
  • Center for Veterinary Medicine
  • National Center for Toxicological Research
  • Office of the Commissioner
  • Office of Regulatory Affairs

Headquartered in Rockville, Md., the FDA has field offices and laboratories in all regions of the country. The agency employs 10,000 people nationwide, including biologists, chemists, nutritionists, physicians, pharmacists, pharmacologists, veterinarians and public-health specialists.

Consumer Watchdog
When something does go awry-such as a food contamination or a recall-the FDA gets the information to the public as quickly as possible. It receives complaints from the public-40,000 a year by its own estimate-and investigates those reports. The agency also keeps a look-out for adverse effects and other emerging problems with previously tested products. The FDA can withdraw its approval of a product, forcing manufacturers to pull it from the shelves. It works with foreign governments and agencies to ensure that imported products meet its standards as well.

The FDA publishes several consumer publications each year, including FDA Consumer magazine, brochures, health and safety guides, and public-service announcements. It states that its main initiatives include: the management of public health risks; keeping the public better informed both through its own publications and through informative labeling, so that consumers can make their own educated decisions; and, in the post-9/11 era, counter-terrorism, to ensure that the U.S. food supply is not tampered with or contaminated.

Phaedra Trethan is a freelance writer who also works as a copy editor for the Camden Courier-Post. She formerly worked for The Philadelphia Inquirer, where she wrote about books, religion, sports, music, films and restaurants.

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