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Crucial FDA role in public safety

Last week, media reported that a number of people died after imbibing that popular coconut-based alcoholic beverage called “lambanog”.

The alleged deaths were reported in some parts of Laguna and Quezon City.

There were earlier reports that similar cases have occurred in Tarlac.

As of press time, the report of the deaths and their link to “lambanog” are yet to be confirmed. Whatever the result of the investigation may be, this news highlighted the vulnerability of the ordinary Filipino to risks posed by food and beverage products that are sold in the market without having gone through the regulatory process.

The reported incidents also thrust the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) back into the limelight.

This agency is tasked with making sure that the products that Filipinos eat, drink and put into their bodies and homes are safe, efficient and are what they claim themselves to be and to be able to do and provide.

The agency’s responsibility encompasses several key industries – pharmaceuticals, food, beverages, cosmetics, toys, household items and almost every other product that touches people’s everyday lives.

The FDA tests these products, certifies them and ensures they comply with the quality and safety standards even after they have gotten their certification.

In addition, the FDA is also tasked with making sure there are no similar products in the market that are being sold without having gone through laboratory testing and proper certification.

It is the FDA’s job to make sure that what people buy are not counterfeits and fakes.

That is a rather large job for an agency the size of the Philippine FDA.

The question now is, is this crucial agency getting the kind of support and resources it needs to make sure it does the job well based on its mandate and the law which created it?

Just take the case of the beloved “lambanog”. The time-honored drink is a favorite among farmers, laborers and other beings who toil hard to put food into the family’s dinner table.

It is the alternative to gin. The “lambanog “, it is said, is more popular in the areas outside of Metro Manila.

It has higher alcohol content and anyone who can chug-a-lug this alcoholic beverage without getting tipsy right away is believed to enjoy a superior degree of manhood.

The drink is produced in backyards using traditional methods. They are placed in glass containers which contain no registered labels, and with nothing to indicate content, warnings and expiration dates.

One just has to drive through the resort district of Calamba to appreciate the massive scale in which this popular drink is being produced and sold without passing through product testing and certification.

With meager resources – particularly for regulatory enforcement – how can the FDA cope with a challenge like this?

Last we heard, the FDA had already started to gather samples from the drink supposed to have been imbibed by the alleged victims prior to their death.

The samples will go through laboratory testing. The tests will show whether or not the drink contained substances that are toxic and are therefore fatal.

The FDA has also already warned the public to exercise caution and to refrain from patronizing products that are not registered with the agency.

The ideal scenario is for the FDA regulatory enforcement elements to swoop down on the unauthorized outlets peddling the unregistered “lambanog”.

Its agents should confiscate them and padlock the outlets. This is what the FDA does with unscrupulous parties that sell unregistered food, drugs, herbal products, medical devices and cosmetic items.

FDA’s mandate said it should do this. What baffles many is what appears to be a conspiracy of circumstances – or of certain powerful interests – to have the agency’s ability to perform it job clipped.

We recall that media circles were abuzz with talks many months ago regarding the efforts on the part of a former senior health official to have the law enforcement budget of the FDA scratched completely.

The move by that erstwhile official led many to ask whether the said official was championing the cause of counterfeiters and producers of fake products whose operations suffer when the FDA does its job.

It is a good that the said official had already been sacked from the post.

We cannot understand why a health official should want to curtail the government’s ability to protect the public from food and drugs that can damage their health and even kill them.

It is clear that there are some who abhor the FDA’s presence and who would want to have its regulatory enforcement capabilities clipped.

Without sufficient budget, the FDA will be forced to stop its law enforcement operations and would be limited to just airing warnings to the public.

That would also reduce the FDA to a laughing stock of manufacturers and sellers who prefer to bring their products to the market without going through the FDA processes.

That would save them the cost of manufacturing products that are safe and faithful to their product claims.

The government set up the FDA to protect the public from business interest with this kind of mindset.

It should be allowed to do its job.

Its powers should be expanded rather than clipped. If not, many more Filipinos will die in the hands of the manufacturers and peddlers of unregistered, counterfeit and untested products.

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