The beginnings of all that the USFDA regulates can be traced right to the early decades of the founding of the nation. In a sense, the FDA, even if came to be called by that formal name much later; embodies the discipline and value set that the new created nation sought to represent. Regulation of all aspects of American life was deeply ingrained very early in the nation’s history, and the FDA was one of prime institutions that played a part in making this happen.
How has the FDA evolved and shaped up over the years? What are the important milestones of this history? This makes interesting reading, because the USFDA has had the kind of history whose colorfulness is matched by few other regulatory agencies around the world.
An indication of the extent to which the FDA attaches importance to ensuring the wellbeing of the American people can be gauged from the fact that the food and other products that this agency regulates account for a fifth of the total money that the nation’s consumers spend. Just its budget – well over four billion in 2014 – is a good indicator to the way in which the FDA has spread its influence in the various spheres of American life. It regulates almost all food items with the exception of meat and poultry.
This situation has not been reached accidentally or overnight. The FDA has by and large kept pace with the developments in the areas it regulates. This was largely true till the advent of very recent technology-led areas such as biotechnology and the social media, where too, the FDA has been trying to put its best foot forward.
The start of formal regulation
A look at the history of the FDA points to the year 1848 as the start of the first formal aspects of regulatory history. That was the year in which Lewis Caleb Beck took his appointment with the Patent Office. His mandate was to chemically analyze agricultural products. This is considered as the first task that was aimed at regulating a product that people consumed. This function rolled over to the Department of Agriculture, which was created in 1862.
The Act of 1906The next step in solidifying the regulatory aspects of life in the US was taken in 1906, with the promulgation of the Pure Food and Drugs Act in 1906. Stretching to some two decades of wrangling between the American Congress and the food industry to formulate, the Act of 1906 sought to prohibit adulterated and misbranded food and drugs from interstate commerce.
The 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic ActThe next major milestone in the aspects of regulatory history in the US took place in 1938. The 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act prescribed and detailed the legal requirements for products the FDA – which this Act created – regulated. In this Act, one can trace the earliest tidings of a major activity that the FDA has been carrying out since then: Prescribing the requirements for ensuring quality by prohibiting false claims by manufacturers and advertisers.
Over time, the 1938 Act expanded to include more areas such as cosmetics, devices and veterinary medicines, thus strengthening the foundation for regulation and making it more expansive. Since the passage of the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act; two major events happened on the regulatory scene. The outbreak of tetanus and diphtheria diseases in the 1960’s compelled the FDA to take a more proactive approach to vaccinations.
Another major, earthshaking event was the tragedy that thalidomide unleashed on Europe in the 1960’s, which stunted the growth of hundreds of children, which was mainly due to regulatory lapse. This did not happen in the US, mainly because of the efforts and diligence shown by Frances Kelsey, in her role as FDA reviewer. Frances plainly refused to approve thalidomide because she was not convinced about its safety, an act which made her a cult figure in FDA and American and Canadian medicinal history till her death in 2015.
Aspects of regulatory history in the US in the 1990’sFollowing the 1960’s, the next major milestone in the aspects of regulatory history in the US happened in 1990, when the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act was passed. This law was important because it changed the American perspective of labeling of products in the food and pharmaceutical industries. The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act requires manufacturers to provide nutritional information about products on their labels, with the caveat that false labeling information will lead to consequences.