FDA’s wide-ranging public health and safety responsibilities make it an unlikely candidate for mission creep.  Nonetheless, that specter may very well apply to the agency’s ongoing International Mail Facility (IMF) surge involving its small but invaluable cadre of criminal investigators.

In a recent statement addressing the epidemic of opioid abuse, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, announced that FDA “will continue to strengthen its enforcement activities that target those who unlawfully market or distribute illicit opioids and other unapproved drugs. We’ll step up our efforts aimed at the interdiction of opioids being illegally shipped into the United States and will continue to increase the number of investigators, both civil and criminal, in the IMFs [emphasis added].”

FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations (OCI) is a relatively small law enforcement unit.  When I retired from OCI six years ago, we had about 180 field agents.  That number has probably changed since that time, but OCI’s proportional size to other more traditional and much larger law enforcement organizations certainly has not.  Small as it may be, OCI is still an enforcement jewel for FDA and all Americans.

Because of its resource limitations, OCI should be surgically deployed to target criminal investigations under FDA’s primary jurisdiction that other federal law enforcement agencies either lack the authority to pursue or view as low priorities.  In my experience, this has not always been the case.  The more diluted OCI’s mission becomes, the less effective it will be as an FDA enforcement tool.

By assigning increasing numbers of OCI agents to investigate controlled substance smuggling cases at the IMFs, FDA may be crippling more traditional enforcement priorities.  This well-intentioned plan to address the opioid abuse epidemic will only marginally advance the efforts of law enforcement agencies, such as DEA, FBI, and HSI/ICE, that dwarf OCI in size and have historically investigated these cases.

The opportunity cost of the IMF surge strategy could have dire consequences for the agency as OCI’s pursuit of controlled substance cases gains momentum.  Increasing OCI’s presence at IMFs to investigate illicit opioid cases is entirely understandable considering the current tsunami of abuse, but it also represents a worrisome mission creep for the agency.