By: Mary Lou Valdez
“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare famously asked. “A rose,” his Juliet reasoned, “by any other name would smell as sweet.” And often, we know, that’s true. But other times, a change in name can signify some larger, more substantive shift.
The latter was the case in mid-April when we sat down in Washington to meet with one of China’s key regulatory agencies, the China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA). Just weeks before arriving in Washington, during the 12th People’s Congress in Beijing, CFDA had gained new authorities from the Chinese government, and had been given a new name. CFDA became the new moniker for what was formerly known as the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA). At the same time, it gained enhanced authorities. Most notably, CFDA was given overall authority over China’s domestic system for food safety, absorbing roles previously overseen three other Chinese government agencies. CFDA was also elevated to become a ministry, reporting directly to China’s State Council—the equivalent in U.S. terms of becoming a cabinet-level agency.
But even before this name change and “promotion” within the Chinese government, CFDA had evolved significantly in the years since we began high-level talks with them in 2007. Over the years, these bilateral meetings— which are required annually under the terms of the agreement the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services signed with then-SFDA in 2007—have served as a barometer of our evolving relationship with Chinese regulatory authorities.
In 2007 and 2008— years that by all accounts were difficult ones for China with respect to the safety of its exports— exchanges were often challenging, fraught with tension and growing pains. These early efforts represented the first-ever set of talks between senior officials at FDA and then-SFDA, and took place in the context of highly-publicized product-safety issues that dominated those years. Challenges have certainly not gone away in the intervening years, but our April 2013 talks made clear that our relationship with CFDA has matured significantly since those early efforts. Where 2007 represented, in many ways, an introduction, and 2008 marked the first-ever establishment of a bilateral work plan, today, most officials involved in these talks come to the table well-known by their colleagues on the other side of the table. And the slate of topics for our April meeting made clear the deep collaboration between FDA and CFDA across more than a dozen topic areas.
While much of the strengthening of our relationship with CFDA has come through day-to-day collaboration between FDA’s China Office and CFDA officials in Beijing, there are significant ties in multiple areas across our agencies:
- A working group on economically-motivated adulteration (the fraudulent substitution of a substance in a product to increase value or reduce production costs for the purposes of economic gain) meets on a regular basis by video, linking Washington-based experts with CFDA’s key decision-makers.
- Experts from FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health now meet regularly with their counterparts from CFDA under the auspices of the International Medical Devices Regulatory Forum.
- FDA and CFDA collaborate closely under the auspices of the World Health Organization’s Working Group for Member States on Substandard, Spurious, Falsely-Labeled, Falsified and Counterfeit Medicines. FDA and CFDA inspectors observe one another’s inspections, and in May 2013, FDA and CFDA will co-host workshops to enhance our collaboration in the fight against internet-based, illegal distribution of adulterated drugs.
The list goes on. Change— of organizational names, of personnel— will continue. Based on our recent talks with CFDA, however, it is clear that one constant will remain: the mature relationship our agencies have built enabling us to better address challenges to consumer and patient safety in years to come.