[Viewpoint] KFDA needs more support

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[Viewpoint] KFDA needs more support

In Korea, there is a saying that a man cries three times in life: when he is born, when his parents pass away and when his country collapses.

Recently, the commissioner of the Korea Food and Drug Administration shed tears in the National Assembly.

In his case, maybe the third time a man sheds tears is when his workplace seems on the verge of collapse.

The commissioner’s tears came after a thrashing over the latest serious scare over food and drug safety, an ever-growing concern that threatens to reshape the KFDA.

The agency has been involved in several big scandals of late, each seemingly straight out of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” which exposed in graphic detail the unsanitary conditions of American meatpacking plants in the early 1900s.

In the KFDA’s case, we’re talking dumplings filled with rotten ingredients, parasite eggs in kimchi and asbestos-laced pharmaceuticals.

The scary thing is, those are just a few examples.

The KFDA has taken steps forward in terms of product safety in the aftermath of each scandal.

But there is still a long way to go, both to create the kind of atmosphere inside the agency to prevent these incidents from happening and to create a scientific system outside the agency to control and monitor the safety of the nation’s food and drug supply.

Four decades ago, pharmaceutical manufacturing was a leading industry in our country, ahead of automobiles and electronics. The latter two have since developed to be the country’s standard-bearers in the world.

Meanwhile, the Korean Intellectual Property Office has made outstanding strides lately, becoming an international agency that top companies from the United States, such as Microsoft and 3M, entrust with their patent affairs. The office has developed a stellar reputation as a workplace, so it can attract highly talented specialists experienced in the fields of work at the KIPO.

The KFDA, meanwhile, has gone in the opposite direction.

There are several reasons behind the KFDA’s fall from grace. One is that the organization has focused its efforts mainly on the domestic market. Korea’s pharmaceutical industry missed several chances to make a leap forward, and instead actually took steps backward, mainly by lowering its standards for pharmaceutical products and businesses in the name of protecting the domestic industry. That caused it to lose competitiveness on the global stage.

The Korean agency can learn a lesson from the stories of Israel’s Teva and India’s Dr. Reddy’s.

Those pharmaceutical companies entered the U.S. generic drug market and wound up taking a 30 to 40 percent share.

The KFDA can help Korean domestic pharmaceutical companies enter the U.S. market as well. Additionally, if a free trade agreement between Seoul and Washington is approved, our pharmaceutical industry may get another chance to develop further.

But perhaps we should ask if our society has the right to condemn the commissioner of the KFDA.

If the agency had more support from the government, after all, it would not be in this mess.

The United States Food and Drug Administration, for example, has already established branch offices in India and China to help oversee the products that come into America from those countries. The Barack Obama administration even plans to broaden its regulations on tobacco.

In other words, the U.S. government has given much support to the FDA.

In the United States, 23 percent of the entire budget for research and development in the private and public sectors is for health and medical issues. In our country, it accounts for less than 10 percent.

Among the member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, research and development budgets average 2.26 percent of the gross domestic product.

In Korea, the figure is even higher, 2.98 percent, but its budget for R&D in the medical and health field is incredibly small. For the past five years, only 450 billion won ($328 million) has been piped into efforts to develop new drugs in Korea. That is much less than the amount a pharmaceutical company abroad needs to develop a single new drug ? typically ranging from 500 billion to 1 trillion won.

When the Lee Myung-bak administration talks about the “Human New Deal” and the “Green New Deal,” it must not leave out food and drug safety issues and the health and medical industry. The administration must make an investment in these areas. Legislators must get on board to help develop the agency, increase its budget and make it more international.

The tears of the commissioner aptly describe the KFDA’s situation. It’s sad. But, with the right kind of support from the government, the KFDA can be reborn as a new agency we can all take pride in.

*The writer is a professor at Yonsei University Graduate School of Public Health. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Sohn Myong-sei
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