By Carlos David Mongollón

Hey, FDA!—Responsible government includes quick access to public information
I have to admit to being upset at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

After four years with WC&P, I’d have thought it would be easier to track down information the agency oversees related to bottled water, particularly on its website. The item is among those regulated by the FDA under the Office of Plant and Dairy Foods and Beverages headed by Terry Troxell, Ph.D.

But forget about calling. Forget about using the Internet. This is one agency that will spin you into a bureaucratic void upon first contact. Whether that’s true about topics other than bottled water, who knows? However, a recent website scan reveals researching bottled water rules online here requires investing at least an hour of reviewing obtuse, useless documents. And then you’re likely to give up frustrated, before finding anything of merit.

It seems as if all 1999 documents (and many 2000 ones) you do run across refer to issues last determined in 1998. To get the meat of the most current one—”Bottled Water Feasibility Study”—you have to go to the February 2000 Federal Register to find out its simply a labeling issue. When I called to try and reach Dr. Troxell, a recording told me: “This destination is not accepting messages because the mailbox is full.” Duh?

If this were just an isolated incident, I might dismiss it. However, it’s happened every time I’ve tried to get information from the FDA. The running joke at an American Water Works Association convention this summer was the agency had three-fifths of a person assigned to cover bottled water—and you get extra points if you can track that person down.

In these days of the TV media “exposé” (using the term loosely) and litigious activist groups, such poor access to information could prove disastrous to any industry that depends on consumer confidence, such as bottled water. Think about the Natural Resources Defense Council bottled water report last year or Los Angeles County water vending study the year before.

If bottled water wants to be taken seriously when it claims to be the most regulated beverage or more highly regulated than tap water, it needs to have an oversight agency that’s more responsive and interactive to public needs. That isn’t the case here. For that reason, WC&P feels the FDA needs to do the following things to build up public confidence in it as a valued expenditure of tax dollars:

  • Establish a beverages division. With the wide and varied types of beverages on the market today from super caffeinated sodas to new age drinks and oxygenated water, it seems only natural this be given its own area of concentration independent of eggs and cheese.
  • Establish a hotline telephone number. This, like the USEPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline, would be to tell callers where to find information or give it to them directly. It also would serve as a good tool to register and offer quick response to possible foodborne/beverage contaminant outbreaks that put public health at risk.
  • Revamp its website. A government website should allow a person to track an issue to the appropriate department, division or office with easy navigational tools and clear lines of direction for the viewer. Again, take a lesson from the USEPA. Its website is relatively simple to use to find information fast and expediently. Such a site also would prove a good resource to promote uniformity among related state agencies, whose rules and enforcement for bottled water vary widely.

This isn’t to mention the dearth of action on the part of the FDA in providing bottlers additional reporting guidance on nine contaminants last ruled on in May 1998. The many people earning their living from bottled water and their customers deserve more from the federal government than delays. Otherwise bottled water should be assigned to another agency more in tune with its needs.

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