FDA declines interview with News 4 Investigates

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – When News 4 Investigates questioned food import regulations and the safety of U.S. consumers, it turned to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But the government agency, whose mission is to keep the public’s safety in mind, refused to be interviewed.

The agency has a $4.5 billion budget funded by U.S. taxpayers, and by declining an interview with News 4 Investigates, taxpayers like Anna Montgomery, a shopper News 4 spoke with in North Buffalo, said the FDA is disrespecting U.S. citizens.

“It’s just another way to say that the people are ignorant and don’t want to have the information,” she said.

The FDA is an agency with the job of protecting public health on many different fronts — not the least of which involves the food you eat.

“Bureaucrats are very defensive. Bureaucrats are afraid of their shadow,” Rep. Chris Collins (R-Clarence) said.

News 4 Investigates has been trying to get an FDA official to answer questions about food safety on camera or by telephone since September.

Carl Nielsen, former director of the FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs Division of Import Operations and Policy, said he’s not surprised by the FDA’s position. Nielsen retired in 2005 after nearly 30 years with the FDA and now operates a consulting firm in Maryland.

“There have been attempts by the agency to improve the communication, including with industry. The regulated industry. But it’s extremely difficult,” Nielsen said.

After repeated requests to talk to an FDA official, an agency spokesperson issued the following email response.

“We respectfully decline the request for an interview. I will follow up to provide written responses on the topics you requested,” the email stated.

But Nielsen said the FDA shouldn’t be afraid of transparency.

“The public can have some real assumptions of what the agency should do, and some assumptions of what they may have done as far as making certain a product on that grocery shelf is okay,” Nielsen said.

The FDA’s refusal to be interviewed by News 4 Investigates comes at a time when the agency could see a $358 million increase in its operating budget. Most of the money would go to help the agency improve oversight of food safety.

Jonathan Allen, a taxpayer and shopper, said refusing to answer question draws red flags.

“To me, typically that’s when you know there’s a problem. When they refuse to answer your questions. Because it’s like what’s the big mystery all about,” he said.

“You can’t defend that at any level,” Collins said. “Government serves the people. We pay for all of these agencies. They have a job to do, and they should be in a position to defend the job they do and explain their rationale behind decisions.”

The FDA has been responding to questions submitted in writing — but the agency continues to push back when asked to go on camera, or talk by telephone.

“In this case written responses are really the most effective way for me to get you the information,” the FDA’s spokesperson stated in an email sent to News 4.

Collins, a member of the House Committee on Agriculture, said it is simple.“They shouldn’t be afraid to talk about what they’re doing,” he said.

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