The Food and Drug Administration needs to improve procedures and enforcement to protect itself against conflicts of interest on the part of its more than 800 special consultants and advisers, the General Accounting Office has said.
Although the product-safety agency prides itself on being a pioneer in guarding against financial conflicts by the part-time but often influential specialists, GAO found that "much remains to be done."
It recommended that the FDA expand coverage of its guidelines, develop more specific procedures for implementation, assure that adequate information is available to appropriate officials on potential conflicts and improve the mechanism for public disclosure of financial interests in cases where disclosure is required.
The GAO, which serves as the investigated agency for Congress, examined the FDA's extensive roster or outside specialists - ranging from tea tasters of Rep. John E. Moss (D-Calif.), chairman of the oversight subcommittee of the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee.
Although GAO has probed financial monitoring systems for federal employees. Comptroller General Elmer B. Staats, head of GAO, said this was the agency's first examination of the vast network of consultants, advisers and other experts who serve the bureaucracy.
GAO said it did not find any cases involving conflict of interest by special employees but noted that "the scope of GAO's review was not sufficiently broad to enable GAO to find such cases should they exist."
What it did find, GAO reported, were inconsistencies, gaps, errors and instances of vagueness that could permit conflicts to occur undetected and unchallenged.
For instance, it said conflict of interest guidelines do not adequately cover persons with financial interests in diversified firms that include but are not limited to FDA-regualted products.
It cited numerous instances inwhich monitoring officials did not have adequate information with which to determine whether a conflict existed. It also cited cases in which, contrary to FDA policy, appointments were made before a final conflict of interest determination was made.
In the case of the National Advisory Food and Drug Committee, it found that members were not restricted by conflict of interest regulations, altough some had financial interests in FDA-regulated industries, because their duties were determined to involve broad policy rather than specific firms.
A member of the Board of Tea Tasters had a financial interest in the tea industry but was not covered because legislation requires members to be tea experts and because tasters are not informed what brand of tea they are tasting, the GAO reported.
The GAO concluded that most of the errors and inconsistencies stemmed from the lack of any formalized policy guidelines for FDA before January, 1976, and praised the agency for strengthening the guidelines in line with GAO recommendations of October.
"We believe that FDA's recent actions have increased the effectiveness of the system to protect against conflict of interest situations . . .," GAO said. "Hoever, much remains to be done to complete system development and to intergrate its components."