When the new leadership took over at FDA, they inherited one of many problems when it comes to the troubled history of the FDA's response to issues associated with the presence of bisphenol-A (BPA) in or near the foods we consume. And when it comes to BPA, it seems there are not only a lot of different points of view about its safety, it seems there are a lot of points of view about what the agency's approach to BPA is right now.
BPA is an agent used in plastics – plastics which are then used to store or transport food. It is even contained in the liner in some cans. As a result, the chemical is found in most of our bodies. Whether or not it causes harm as a result has been a matter of intense scrutiny, but the evidence was enough to cause Health Canada to act to ban the substance, while other governmental entities concluded that in small levels, BPA did not pose a risk. In the United States, federal legislation has been introduced that would ban BPA entirely from all children's products by Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY).
The issue of BPA and FDA has been a thorny issue going back many years. But the FDA has also this year launched an aggressive effort at improving transparency on how decisions are made at the agency, and with that one presumes they also mean clarity. If so, then the case of the evaluation of the safety of BPA by the FDA is a case study waiting to happen.
Consider a review of the most recent headlines about the FDA and the BPA and see if they tell you a story of any kind:
- "Reversing Itself, FDA Expresses Concerns Over Health Risks of BPA" – Washington Post, January 16, 2010
- "Heightened Concerns Over BPA" – New York Times, January 20, 2010
- "FDA to Miss Third Deadline on BPA" – Milwaukee Sentinal Journal, December 29, 2009
- "FDA Calls BPA Risky, But Puts Off Regulation" – OMB Watch, January 19, 2010
- "FDA to Take New Steps to Regulate BPA" – Digital News Report, January 15, 2010
- "FDA Says it's Unable to Regulate BPA" – Milwaukee Sentinal Journal, January 17, 2010
So what is the story? Is BPA a priority, is it not? Is it risky or not? Is the FDA regulating it, or is it not? I dunno. The only story I get from this is that people don't know what's going on when it comes to the FDA and BPA.
There is no way to hold the FDA responsible for what reporters and bloggers write, and some may write with a bias. But there is responsibility when it comes to communicating a story and doing so well. This is about more than BPA, it goes to the heart of the FDA's efforts to reassert its credibility in general, and with regard to safety in particular. If the FDA cannot enunciate the story about BPA safety so that the public has a clear picture of what is going on, why should the public trust any other safety assessment whether it be on food or drug evaluations?
The FDA needs to do a better job of utilizing the assets in hand for this job – meaning their Web site, their YouTube channel and especially their Twitter channel, where a clear message can be enunciated and achieve momentum in an echo chamber that gets repeated mostly without interpretation, thereby strengthening the message content. And Twitter is also a traffic driver that drives followers to key sites where there are message platforms awaiting the target audiences – consumer groups, reporters and bloggers.
But it may be time for the FDA to resurrect some old discarded tools. Years ago, the agency used to issue what were called "Talk Papers". Originally these were efforts to draw attention to topics and which were meant to provide some more in-depth resources than were ordinary news releases. They were meant to be, in fact, more like papers than releases. However, over time, they came to resemble regular press releases and the differences were indistinguishable and one day, they just disappeared. Maybe it is time for FDA to reconsider the idea of a Talk Paper. It would be issued when there is an issue of importance where there is the potential for significant confusion. It could have tightly drawn messages that would hopefully be echoed in headlines, rather than let reporters interpret agency actions in ten different ways so that by the end of the day, no one knows the story.