THURSDAY, April 30, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- Although the American public feels a little better about the job the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is doing now than a year ago, about half still believes the agency isn't doing enough to safeguard the country's food and drugs, a new Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll finds.
When it comes to monitoring the safety and effectiveness of new prescription drugs, 47 percent of respondents believe the agency does a poor job -- an improvement over the 58 percent disapproval rating noted in a similar poll last year.
As for food safety, 49 percent of Americans have a negative view of the job the FDA is doing, while 48 percent have a positive assessment.
Imported food safety, in particular, appears a focus of concern, with only 6 percent of respondents saying that the FDA's oversight of imported foods is "excellent" and 21 percent saying it is "poor."
Similarly, there's doubt about the FDA's ability to ensure the safety of prescription drugs manufactured abroad.
"Perceptions of drug safety have gone up and down," said Humphrey Taylor, chairman of The Harris Poll. "I think what happens is that, as stories break about drug problems -- and Vioxx comes to mind -- those numbers go up. We seem to have recovered from the low figures of last year," he added.
However, on the list of things people believe the agency should be looking at, "food safety emerges as by far the top priority as far as the public is concerned for the FDA," Taylor said. That could reflect concern with a slew of recent food-borne illness outbreaks, including the recent peanut/salmonella scandal and another salmonella outbreak in 2008 that was eventually traced to tainted jalapeno peppers.
"Every time you get a food recall, spinach or tomatoes or any of those things, you get a huge blip in public opinion and people cut back on buying spinach and so on," Taylor said. "Those kinds of stories on food safety and drug safety really do have a big impact."
FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Kwisnek said her agency had not yet read the poll results and could not offer specific comments. But she said the FDA is working with the Obama administration on "new legislative approaches and also is embarking on an aggressive and proactive approach" to improve oversight of the U.S. food supply.
According to Kwisnek, this new strategy includes "working closer with companies on recalls before any illnesses are associated with potentially harmful products," using the Internet and other "social media mechanisms" to keep the public better informed, establishing "presences overseas to ensure the safety of products coming into the United States," and hiring more scientists and inspectors.
The new online survey, conducted in mid-April, queried a nationally representative sample of 2,495 adults aged 18 and over.
Another big worry for respondents: domestically made prescription drugs. Only 8 percent of poll respondents feel the agency is doing an "excellent" job of making sure new prescription drugs are safe and effective, or monitoring the safety of prescription drugs after they arrive on the market.
Similarly, only 11 percent believe the FDA does an "excellent" job of handling recalls of prescription drugs. Overall, 43 percent think the agency's handling of recalls is "good," 28 percent "fair," and 12 percent "poor."
"This shows there's still a lot of concern out there about how the FDA does its job," said Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist at Food & Water Watch, a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C.
Another consumer advocate agreed. "The public is reflecting a legitimate concern about the capacity of the FDA, with its current resources and current legal authorities, to do what needs to be done to protect the food supply," added Jeffrey Levi, executive director of the Trust for America's Health.
The public does seem to remember recent product recalls: 90 percent remember when peanut butter was pulled off the shelves; 68 percent remember last year's melamine-tainted dog/cat-food recall; and 63 percent remember the 2006 spinach scare, the survey found.
More than half (56 percent) of those surveyed feel positively about how the FDA handles food recalls, while 40 percent feel negatively. Confidence about drug recalls was less robust.
Reflecting these concerns, a majority of respondents (59 percent) said they feel that food safety should be the FDA's most important priority, followed by ensuring the safety and effectiveness of prescription drugs (37 percent). The safety of imported food came in third at 30 percent.
But respondents had little confidence in the FDA's ability to safeguard imported food. That's important, because "over 80 percent of our seafood is now imported, and a growing percentage of fruits and vegetables," Corbo said. "There is well-founded concern among consumers about the safety of imports."
Among the survey's other key findings:
- In 2009, 47 percent of respondents felt negative and an equal number positive about how the FDA ensures the safety and effectiveness of new prescription drugs. In 2004, 56 percent were positive and 37 percent were negative. During the intervening years, the numbers have swung both ways, perhaps reflecting current drug crises in the news, Taylor said.
- More individuals (53 percent) felt positive than negative (40 percent) about how the FDA handles drug recalls in 2009, versus an opposite trend in 2008: 39 percent positive and 53 percent negative.
- Roughly the same percentage of people feel positive and negative about how the FDA monitors drugs after they are approved.
- About one-third (35 percent) of respondents say the FDA approves new drugs too slowly, 19 percent too quickly, and 18 percent think the process is about right.
- Only one-quarter feel "very confident" about the safety of over-the-counter medicines such as cough and cold medicines; 24 percent feel the same about prescription drugs, both brand names and generics. But only 14 percent feel this way about herbal remedies and nutritional supplements.
There has been speculation as to whether the new Obama administration will make the changes necessary for the FDA to improve its performance. But any improvement will no doubt be slow, experts said.
"The FDA did respond to the recent pistachio recall more aggressively than in the past, but it's going to take a lot of work and a lot of resources to really turn this around, so I think the public is appropriately concerned," Levi said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on food safety.