Why do FDA auditors wear uniforms on investigations?

My wife works at a major medical research facility in Boston that participates in drug trials for pharmaceutical companies. She mentioned that the FDA occasionally performs audits on the trials to make sure they are conforming to FDA standards. The odd thing she mentioned was that all the FDA auditors dress in military-style blue and white uniforms, with epaulets and other military-style accouterments.

Is the FDA empowered as a law-enforcement agency? Do they need to be, in order to wear a uniform? Do auditors from other government agencies (like the IRS) wear uniforms? Is it vanity, like the uniform worn by former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop? Or is it just a nice touch to intimidate those being audited?

I’m pretty sure your wife is mistaken. While FDA enforcement agents can carry badges and guns, which are useful for performing some of the hazardous duties related to food handlers and black marketeers, I’ve never seen an actual FDA agent in a uniform. What I have seen are Public Health Service officers in uniform, seconded to the FDA. Since both are under the DHHS, this sort of reassignment is procedurally simple.

I have also heard of FDA agents wearing FBI-style jumpsuits when conducting raids (massive inspections of buses at the borders, for instance), but that doesn’t appear to be what you’re describing.

With all due respect, my wife is perfectly capable of recognizing a uniform when she sees one. She described as being similar to a Navy uniform. What’s more, there were more than one FDA auditor conducting the review, and they were wearing identical outfits, which is pretty much the definition of a uniform. The question is not whether they wearing a uniform, it is why.

Nametag wasn’t questioning whether your wife saw uniforms. He was suggesting that they could have been PHS officers in uniform, seconded to the FDA.

I apologize. But I doubt that as well; why would the PHS be involved in an audit? It’s not like they were checking for dirty petri dishes; they were reviewing documentation and protocol to insure the data was valid. I don’t see the public health interest, at least not directly.

USPHS Commissioned Corps

VADM Richard Carmona, MD

ADM John O. Agwunobi, MD, MBA, MPH

HHS and Commissioned Corps

The PHS CC is just like the old starfleet: all officers. They wear a USN type uniform, with similar insignia. They use a hybrid of titles, though:

O1|Ensign|Junior Assistant
O2|Lieutenant Junior Grade|Assistant
O3|Lieutenant|Senior Assistant
O4|Lieutenant Commander|Full

O7|Rear Admiral, Lower Half|Assistant Surgeon General
O8|Rear Admiral, Upper Half|Assistant Surgeon General or
O8|Rear Admiral, Upper Half|Deputy Surgeon General or
O9|Vice Admiral|Surgeon General
O10|Admiral|Assistant Secretary of Health

They serve in Federal Service slots throughout the DHHS: CDC, FDA, IHS,…

There is a sort of equivalence for the General Service grades (GS) and Senior Executive Service(SES)

N/A: O1|Ensign|Junior Assistant
GS-7: O2|Lieutenant Junior Grade|Assistant
GS-9 through GS-11: O3|Lieutenant|Senior Assistant
GS-12: O4|Lieutenant Commander|Full
GS-13: O5|Commander|Senior
GS-14/15: O6|Captain|Director

SES: O7|Rear Admiral, Lower Half|Assistant Surgeon General
SES: O8|Rear Admiral, Upper Half|Assistant Surgeon General or
SES: O8|Rear Admiral, Upper Half|Deputy Surgeon General or
SES: O9|Vice Admiral|Surgeon General
SES: O10|Admiral|Assistant Secretary of Health

Nametag is right. The PHS often assists the FDA in investigations, and the PHS wears Navy style uniforms. (Not vanity. All Surgeon Generals wear the PHS uniform.)

The FDA does have civilian Special Agents who wear suits and may carry guns, though.

The PHS does not assist the FDA: commissioned officers of the PHS fill FDA billets, just like their civilian GS/SES counterparts. When certain things happen, PHS officers are deployed in teams to deal with those things, but day-to-day, PHS officers operate just like their civilian counterparts.

A few fine points: No one uses the old “Junior Assistant, Assistant, Senior Assistant, Full, Senior, and Director” titles anymore; too weird. Also, the table you reproduce of military rank equivalents of civil service grades is old. In recent years there has been substantial grade inflation in the Civil Service but little or no grade inflation in the military. Consequently, despite the fact that a lieutenant colonel is officially equivalent (the table has not been updated) to a GS 13, I think you will rarely find a Lt Col in a position that a GS13 would otherwise fill.

Also, PHS officers don’t just serve in the HHS (FDA, NIH, CDC [which includes quarantine officers at ports of entry], Indian Health Service). They also provide medical staff to the Bureau of Prisons and the Coast Guard. Many officers are assigned to the EPA and handfuls are assigned to the DoD, the states, USAID, and various other governmental entities.

Cinemaphiles will remember Richard Widmark as LCDR Clinton Reed, USPHS, in Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (a photograph of Widmark in uniform can be seen at: http://www.infonet.com.br/sysinfonet/images/secretarias/Cinema/richard6.jpg )

Nobody uses those titles anymore? It’s rather odd, then, that they’re still listed in the Corps’ instructions?

Anyway, I understood the case to be that Junior/Assistant/etc. were the actual ranks and that Commander/Lieutenant/etc. were the courtesy titles.

BTW, Yeah, thanks for the photo. I was looking for a good image online to show the Corps crest. The shoulder board in that photo you’ve linked to shows it nicely.

Based on my experience at CDC/ATSDR, the GS/PHS chart is correct, with a bit of wiggle: The LCDR/O-4 people I know generally serve as GS-12/13, and the CDR/O-5 people I know generally serve at GS-13/14. Moreover, the CAPT/O-6 people I know serve at GS-14/15, and the RADM people I’ve worked with/seen serve in the SES… in the CDC, the RADM people are Center Directors and above.

The PHS is a uniformed service, but not a military service. It’s basically a set of professional officers, analagous to the medical and engineering officers of the armed services. Unless you’re an intern or something, you’ll actually start at O-3 or so, some start at O-4. Adding to the weirdness is that PHS officers have two grades: a temporary grade, and a permanent grade. So some of those officers wearing O-4 are in reality O-3’s.

And yes, while the PHS titles are still listed, noone uses them, though on paper, the correct title for the O-7/8/9/10 is assistant surgeon general, deputy surgeon general and Assistant Secretary of Health.

Both the Assistant Secretary of Health and the Surgeon General are in HHS, and report to the Secretary of DHHS. The non-HHS assignments are a small proportion of PHS strength.

The device that you see on the boards combines two elements: the fouled anchor and the cadeucus (staff of Hermes). The fouled anchor is an anchor with a chain wrapped about it, and symbolizes a ship in hazard. For some odd reason, the US military and PHS insist on using the wrong staff: the Staff of Asclepius(one Snake) is the proper symbol for medicine.

The business of having a temporary and a permanent grade is not all that wierd. The army (and, for all I know, all the other services) used to have the same system. In some ways, the PHS is a bit of a throwback.

I wouldn’t be surprised if someone DID make a mistake, but some people argue that the staff of Hermes was chosen deliberately. Here is a quote from the Student Encyclopedia Britannica referring to the flag of the PHS: “Quarantine flag adopted 1894. The fouled anchor and caduceus (Mercury’s staff) device represents the service’s original function of providing care for merchant seamen. The same badge in white on a blue field stands for the surgeon general of the Public Health Service.” http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9018504 (Mercury, AKA Hermes, was the Roman god of merchandise and merchants.)

The mistake dates back to a US Army medical officer designing a new uniform: he went with the two-snake design (the staff of Hermes), which has nada to do with medicine, but rather is associated with communications and commerce (Hermes was a messenger god). It just sorta stuck after that.

Well, I’ve been audited by the FDA, the food part, not the drug part.
The investigator wore a nice uniform, similar to a forest service uniform. Durable polyester, dark green, khaki accents, gold buttons.
I supplied her with a lab coat and a hard hat and a hair net, but the uniform seemed appropriate. All our factory workers wear uniforms to maintain cleanliness, and to keep them from having to go home in sticky clothing and do their own laundry. It seemed appropriate that the inspector also be in a clean uniform.

The PHS does have a role in food safety, but the uniforms are basically US Navy, which supports navy blue(almost black), white and khaki/tan. The PHS does have a field utility uniform akin to BDUs, but I’m not aware of any olive in the PHS uniform kit.

FWIW, I work for a medical software company, also in Boston, and the last time we were audited by the FDA (about 4 years ago) the auditor showed up in regular suit and tie. Maybe because our company produces a “Class 2 medical device” (which is how our software is defined by the FDA) and we are not a research facility, they didn’t need to send anybody in a uniform…

According to the PHS (http://www.usphs.gov/html/history.html) The PHS seal was apparently developed by John Maynard Woodworth, the first Supervising Surgeon of the Marine Hospital Service, early in his tenure which began in 1871. The PHS site goes on to say, “The caduceus … is often used today as a symbol of medicine, and it is tempting to think that Woodworth intended it to be interpreted in this way. However, the use of the caduceus to represent medicine was not so common in 1871, and it was more often associated with the god Mercury and used to symbolize trade or commerce.”

Use of the caduceus in medicine is wrong, incorrect, and reflects either indifference to, or ignorance of, the context of the caduceus.

At the time of its adoption by the US military and US PHS as a symbol, no-one else used it that way, and there were people within the US establishments that opposed it.

At best, the cadusceus was “appropriated” by Dr. Churchill in his publishing concerns, and even there, it was being used in a way not consistent with its historical and cultural context and meaning:

Last time I checked, Hermes didn’t practice medicine. Maybe the idea of a fast courier makes sense in the business of EMTs, ambulances and life flights, but the staff of Hermes has nought to do with medicine.

Asklepius, however had strong connections to medicine, and the Asklepian is the correct symbol for medicine.

As for the PHS Commissioned Corps, the use of the uniform varies. Depending on the circumstances, USPHS officers are actually directed to not wear the uniform. It is not unusual, for example, for EIS officers to wear discreet civvies in the course of field investigations. Additionally, officers billeted to HHS agencies typically do not wear their uniforms every day. Although in recent years, that has changed a bit, with PHS officers being encouraged to wear the uniform more often. And I imagine that people assigned to PHS-dedicated offices wear it every day.

Finally, it is possible that there are civilian GS employees filling FDA regulatory jobs, and that some of these civilian employees are doing field inspection work.

But I still am not aware of a “park service” style PHS uniform. Something else was going on there. If it isn’t black(navy blue), white or tan/khaki, it isn’t a PHS uniform, though possibly at times the PHS will wear Navy-style BDUs in the field.