Correction to This Article
The article about federal regulatory agencies incorrectly said that no illnesses had been reported before the Food and Drug Administration warned consumers in June to stop eating pistachios because of potential salmonella contamination. The agency issued the warning after two people complained that they had become ill, but health officials never confirmed a link between the nuts and those illnesses. The article also incorrectly attributed a statement about Inez Moore Tenenbaum, chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, to Nancy A. Nord, a commissioner who preceded Tenenbaum as acting chairman. In an editing error, a sentence in which the reporter described Tenenbaum's decision to enforce a new consumer-protection law as a reversal from Nord's position was attributed to Nord.

Under Obama, Regulatory Agencies Step Up Enforcement

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Obama administration is taking on Cheerios. And popular cold remedies and swimming pool drains and rhinestones on children's clothing.

With much of Washington focused on efforts to revamp the health-care system and address climate change, a handful of Obama appointees have been quietly exercising their power over the trappings of daily life. They are awakening a vast regulatory apparatus with authority over nearly every U.S. workplace, 15,000 consumer products, and most items found in kitchen pantries and medicine cabinets.

Top appointees at the Food and Drug Administration, for example, have cracked down on dietary supplements with "steroid-like" substances that for years had been sold in gyms and health-food stores. In a move designed as much for symbolism as effect, the new chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission dispatched all 100 agency inspectors across the country last month to enforce a law that requires special drains on swimming pools to prevent children from entrapment. The agency shut down more than 200 pools.

The new regulators display a passion for rules and a belief that government must protect the public from dangers lurking at home and on the job -- one more way the new White House is reworking the relationship between government and business.

"In the Bush administration, the problem was that the political folks were hostile to the mission," said Michael A. Livermore, executive director of the Institute for the Study of Regulation at New York University Law School. "We've already seen the new direction of this White House play out in other regulatory aspects -- the Environmental Protection Agency and financial regulation. With the consumer protection agencies, you're going to see a lot more stuff happening because they fit Obama's broad vision for government."

The regulators still face significant hurdles if they want to dramatically expand government's reach. Most proposed regulations have to be vetted by a central White House office headed by another new appointee, Cass R. Sunstein, whose embrace of cost-benefit analyses may mean he will discourage expensive new rules. Some efforts to expand regulation are sure to face legal challenges from industry. And the private sector is likely to assert that new regulations would be an additional burden in a weak economy.

"The argument is going to be that this is going to hurt jobs and be bad for the economy," Livermore said. "That has resonance on the Hill and within the public. . . . That's the one big challenge."

Already, some have complained that the new political leaders are overzealous.

"It's 'shoot first and ask who we shot later,' " said Gary L. Yingling, a lawyer and pharmacist who worked for a decade in the FDA general counsel's office and now represents companies regulated by the agency. "My concern is whether they've dotted their i's, crossed the t's, understand the statutory regulations and understand what the agency did yesterday. That's a real concern."

Still, waves of recalls of dangerous foods and consumer products have created pressure for stronger federal oversight. The new administration focused first on the FDA, which oversees a quarter of the U.S. economy and during George W. Bush's presidency had been faulted by consumer advocates and members of Congress for not blocking contaminated foods and drugs and faulty medical devices.

In their first few months on the job, FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg and deputy Joshua M. Sharfstein -- both with backgrounds running public health agencies -- notified General Mills that it was violating the law with its two-year-old marketing campaign that said Cheerios can lower cholesterol by 4 percent. The FDA said the company was essentially making a drug claim, which would require clinical studies and agency approval before a product is put on the market. The food giant has removed that claim from its Web site and a spokeswoman said it is in discussions with the FDA.

While the FDA began looking into Cheerios before Obama's election, several lawyers who represent food and drugmakers said they think the agency under Bush would never have taken action against General Mills.

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