Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Change We Can Taste (And Smell)

cheerios.jpgNot, in fact, "clinically proven."

by Tim Fernholz

The Washington Post observes that after years of seat-filling Republican appointees at major consumer regulatory agencies, the Obama administration's officials are actually enforcing the law:

In their first few months on the job, FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg and deputy Joshua M. Sharfstein -- both with backgrounds running public health agencies -- notified General Mills that it was violating the law with its two-year-old marketing campaign that said Cheerios can lower cholesterol by 4 percent. The FDA said the company was essentially making a drug claim, which would require clinical studies and agency approval before a product is put on the market. The food giant has removed that claim from its Web site and a spokeswoman said it is in discussions with the FDA.

While the FDA began looking into Cheerios before Obama's election, several lawyers who represent food and drugmakers said they think the agency under Bush would never have taken action against General Mills.

In the grand scheme of things, unproven claims about a cereal's magic powers aren't the end of the world -- although you can imagine people not seeking proper cholesterol treatment if they think Cheerios will solve that problem -- but you have to be struck by the frank admission that the previous administration would let corporations claim essentially anything without any sanction. It gets more serious:

That same month, the FDA warned consumers to stop using popular cold medicines, Zicam Cold Remedy nasal gel and Zicam Cold Remedy swab products, citing evidence that some consumers could lose their sense of smell. The agency had known about the problem for years but had not addressed it.

That, in a nut shell, is the kind of governance you get when you appoint federal officials who don't believe the law should be enforced. Sure, people are losing their sense of smell, but they just couldn't bear to intervene in the economy. No doubt they expected the market would sort that one out.

More broadly, though, even as progressives go after the Obama administration on all the big stuff it's getting wrong or not quite right enough, it's important to appreciate the smaller changes happening in the everyday administration of government duties.

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