Recently, the Government Accountability Office published a report entitled, “Food and Drug Administration: Better Coordination Could Enhance Efforts to Address Economic Adulteration and Protect Public Health.”

The report describes economic adulteration as follows:

“Economic adulteration is not a new problem and ranges from simple actions, such as adding material to increase a product’s weight, to more sophisticated substitutions or additions that are designed to avoid detection by tests known to be used to authenticate ingredients or products. Economic adulteration differs from other forms of intentional adulteration, such as bioterrorism or sabotage, whose primary purpose is to cause harm.”

Once again, the heparin scandal, the poster child for the vulnerability of the U.S. drug supply, is cited in the report as a prime example of economic adulteration. In 2007-2008, heparin was discovered to contain over-sulfated chondroitin sulfate, a toxic contaminant that mimics heparin. The contamination was evidently economically motivated, and was linked to a number of serious allergic reactions and deaths in the U.S.

Economic adulteration is distinguishable from unintentional violations of current Good Manufacturing Practices, which can also cause a drug to be adulterated. For example, we have seen cases where drugs have been mislabeled, made too strong or too weak, or contaminated with microorganisms, but those problems were a result of poor manufacturing practices, not intentional adulteration with an economic motive. (See, e.g., GlaxoSmithKline statement about its failure to follow cGMP.)

According to the new GAO report, FDA officials and stakeholders cited two main challenges to addressing economic adulteration. The first:

“Globalization has led to an increase in the variety, complexity, and volume of imported food and drugs, which complicates FDA’s task of ensuring their safety. In addition to globalization, an increase in supply chain complexity—the growth in the networks of handlers, suppliers, and middlemen—also complicates FDA’s task.”

This is not the first time globalization has been identified as a problem, but it is a reminder for Congress and the Administration of the challenges facing FDA.

The second problem identified in the report was lack of information from industry. Here, there are two main issues. First, because companies regularly test ingredients from suppliers, they have information on potential adulterations that would be useful to the FDA. However, industry is reluctant to share that information when it does not have to (such as when an adulterated ingredient has entered into commerce) because of fears of exposing themselves to litigation for accusing a supplier of intentionally adulterating products if their findings turn out to be erroneous. Second, FDA would benefit if industry would share more information about what substances might be used to adulterate products. Companies develop tests to monitor products they receive from their suppliers but often are reluctant to share the information with the government because it is proprietary.

These accounts in the report highlight the necessity of involving industry in any solutions to our drug supply safety problems. Fortunately, we have seen a lot of industry support for improving the safety of the drug supply (including the generic industry’s recent agreement with the FDA to pay user fees), and hope the collaborations can continue to improve, as both industry and government will succeed only if they keep the consumer and patient’s safety as the highest priority. But in order to combat economic adulteration (and other forms of drug contamination) and protect the food and drug supply of the U.S., the FDA needs to have the tools and resources necessary to deal with these 21st century concerns.

Additional coverage of the report is available at:

Anna Dunbar-Hester, Policy Analyst