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Integrity in Science Watch May 1, 2006

Ag Secretary Refuses to Fill Consumer Slot on Organics Board

Conflicts of Interest Rife on FDA Panels; Ultimate Decisions Unaffected

Leading Medical Journals Depend on Drug Industry Advertising

FDA Stance on Medical Marijuana Draws Opposition on the Hill

Ag Secretary Refuses to Fill Consumer Slot on Organics Board

The USDA announced it will not fill the consumer group position on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) that was left vacant by the resignation of the food industry lobbyist named to the slot in December of last year. Consumers Union (CU) and the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) had protested the appointment of Katrina Heinze, manager of global regulatory affairs for General Mills (owner of Cascadian Farm organic food company), who quit the Board at the end of February. At the NOSB's mid-April meeting, Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns said that he would not replace her until the next round of appointments, slated for this December. The two consumer organizations' letter to Secretary Johanns in mid-January demanded that Heinze and Daniel Giacomini, a consultant to the organic dairy industry who was also appointed to a consumer position on the panel, step down. "These individuals may be appropriate to serve for industry-related slots on the NOSB, but it is misleading to have them represent the interests of consumers and the public interest," said Urvashi Rangan, the Eco-labeling Project Director at the Consumer's Union. When asked why the consumer position would remain vacant for the remainder of the year, Valerie Francis, staff officer for the NOSB remarked, "It was the Secretary's decision to pick [Ms. Heinze] and he didn't want to pick anyone else."

The 15-member National Organic Standards Board was formed in 1992 to assist the Secretary of Agriculture in determining which foods merit the organic label. Consumer groups have criticized the USDA for refusing to enforce statutes requiring organic cows be raised on pasture instead of feed lots. This has allowed the two largest organic dairy labels, Horizon and Aurora, to produce most of their milk in a way that violates organic standards while enjoying organic market prices.

Conflicts of Interest Rife on FDA Panels; Ultimate Decisions Unaffected

A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that while nearly 30 percent of outside advisers on Food and Drug Administration committees had financial ties to drug or medical device companies, none of the final results of 221 committees examined over a three-year time span would have been altered if the votes of those with conflicts had been excluded. Despite the findings, Peter Lurie, the study's lead author and the deputy director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, said, "I don't think it's acceptable to say we're willing to take any amount of conflict up to the point at which the overall outcome changes." Consulting conflicts were the most prevalent relationship to industry, with nineteen percent valued at over $10,000. While a fifth of the advisers had direct financial ties to the company sponsoring the new drug or device, only one percent recused themselves from voting.

The study proposed that the FDA provide advance notice of the waivers given to scientists with conflicts of interest who serve on FDA panels. Last year, Congress passed such a law, which is up for renewal this year. The study also called on the FDA to issue more recusals. Last week, the FDA's Cardiovascular and Renal Drugs Advisory Committee, which met to discuss a draft guidance for labeling antihypertensive drugs, excluded two scientists who had conducted relevant studies for industry. The Center for Science in the Public Interest's Integrity in Science project had protested their presence on the panel.

Leading Medical Journals Depend on Drug Industry Advertising

A policy forum article in the new Public Library of Science (PLoS) Medicine says medical journals should "just say no" to drug industry advertising after finding that 95 to 99 percent of ads in the Journal of the American Medical Association came from the pharmaceutical and medical device industries. The authors sampled issues published between 1996 and 2004. "By exclusively featuring advertisements for drugs and devices, medical journals implicitly endorse corporate promotion of the most profitable products," the authors, who hailed from the Georgetown University School of Medicine, said. "Advertisements and other financial arrangements with pharmaceutical companies compromise the objectivity of journals." Their recommendation? Journals should solicit ads from firms that want to sell luxury goods to their well-heeled readers.

FDA Stance on Medical Marijuana Draws Opposition on the Hill

Rep. Maurice Hinchey, (D-NY) and twenty-three House members wrote a letter last Thursday to Acting FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach protesting the agency's failure to provide scientific evidence for its statement that "[n]o sound scientific studies supported medical use of marijuana for treatment in the United States..." The coalition claimed the announcement ignored the findings of a 1999 Institute of Medicine report showing the active chemicals in marijuana are beneficial in treating pain, nausea and other symptoms which often accompany long-term illness. Rep. Hinchey, who will reintroduce his amendment preventing prosecution for those who are associated with the medical use of marijuana in certain states, said "We saw it with the agency's decision on the emergency contraceptive, Plan B, and we're seeing it again with medical marijuana: the FDA is making decisions based on politics instead of science."

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