What Can FDA Do During Drug Inspections: Will FDA Apply Its New Guidance to Other Products?

October 22, 2014

By Jay W. Cormier & Anne K. Walsh

For managers and employees of drug facilities, the arrival of an FDA inspector can be an anxiety-producing experience.  Adding to the understandable nervousness surrounding an inspection is FDA’s new statutory authority to deem drug products adulterated if a facility delays, denies, limits, or refuses to permit entry during an FDA inspection (previous post here).  On October 21, 2014, FDA issued a Final Guidance that explains what FDA considers to be circumstances that constitute violative delay, denial, limitation, or refusal.  It appears FDA attempted to clarify certain issues from the Draft Guidance, yet, as we will discuss below, the Final Guidance is critically vague and legally questionable in several ways.

Application to Other Products

On its face, the Final Guidance does not apply to inspections of food, medical device, tobacco, and cosmetic facilities, but the Final Guidance is written in sweeping terms (e.g., “This guidance therefore covers facilities subject to inspection under any of the authorities in section 704”, and section 704 governs inspections of “food, drugs, devices, tobacco products, or cosmetics” facilities).  Therefore it is reasonable to expect that FDA will take a similar approach for all FDA-inspected facilities. 

We also note that the Final Guidance specifically includes “outsourcing facilities” that voluntarily register under section 503B of the FDCA, which was added since the Draft Guidance was issued.  FDA encourages all registrants, including outsourcing facilities, to keep their point-of-contact email information with FDA up to date.  In a footnote, the Final Guidance states that pharmacies are subject to inspection under section 704(a)(1) “even if [a part of] 704(a)(1) is not applicable because of 704(a)(2).”  Although not required to provide FDA with point-of-contact information, FDA encourages pharmacies to keep their point-of-contact information with State agencies up to date, as FDA may use State license information as a source of a facility’s contact information.

(Inappropriate) Regulatory Creep

FDA has frequently issued guidance without going through notice and comment rulemaking.  Try as it may, FDA cannot make law via guidance.   Although the Final Guidance claims it does “not establish legally enforceable responsibilities,” FDA may treat this document as binding authority.  Therefore, the examples that FDA provides throughout the Final Guidance illuminate FDA’s thinking, however erroneous, about the span of FDA’s authority during inspections.  Issues may arise with respect to taking photographs, requiring employees to answer questions, producing documents that are not on-site, or requiring personnel to be present at an inspected facility.

In spite of a lack of statutory language or a binding relevant court opinion, FDA maintains its general rule that investigators are entitled to take photographs during an inspection.  The Final Guidance goes even further than the Draft when claiming that “[i]mpeding or resisting photography” may constitute limiting the investigation and that such a conclusion is in the discretion of the investigator.  FDA’s only example of a “reasonable explanation” for not allowing photos during an inspection borders on ludicrous:  FDA claims it would be reasonable to not allow photos if the light from a camera flash could adversely affect product quality.  As we discussed in depth when the Draft Guidance was issued, the issue of FDA’s authority in the realm of photographs is murky, at best.

The Final Guidance also signals FDA’s view that an inspector has the authority to ask questions of, and demand oral answers from, any individual at a facility –particularly if the individual is designated as a subject matter expert.  Specifically, the Final Guidance states that it would be reasonable for a facility to delay an unannounced inspection if “appropriate personnel are not immediately available to accurately answer the FDA investigator’s questions.”  Given that FDA has no statutory authority to require anyone to answer any questions during an inspection, FDA’s example seems either (1) naïve with respect to the statute, or (2) foundation for a later FDA argument that failure to provide individuals who can “accurately answer the FDA investigator’s questions” is itself a ground for a violation. 

Likewise, the Final Guidance states: “Although FDA recognizes that facilities require a reasonable amount of time to produce records requested, especially if the records are maintained at a different site, a delay in producing records to FDA without reasonable explanation may be considered delaying the inspection.”  This statement shows FDA’s view that it is entitled to records housed at one facility while it is inspecting a different facility.  When inspecting a drug facility, section 704 applies to, among other things, “all things therein (including records, files, papers, processes, controls, and facilities).”  FDCA § 704(a)(1) (emphasis added).  The hypothetical posited in the Final Guidance confirms that FDA’s expectations of facilities extend beyond the already substantial reach Congress delegated to FDA.

It also appears that FDA considers itself entitled to observe a functioning facility during inspection.  The Final Guidance implies that sending staff “home for the day” and telling the investigator that “the facility is not producing any product” would constitute a violative delay.  While FDA may be entitled to observe a functioning facility (provided that the facility is producing product at the time of an inspection), a facility is not required to keep any personnel present at the site beyond the minimal numbers arguably required to carry out the ongoing production runs.  We do not read the Final Guidance as saying that a company cannot send anyone home once it learns of an FDA inspection; nor are we aware of any legal basis for FDA to take such a position.

Reasonable vs. Adequate

In the Final Guidance, FDA made a uniform language shift from use of the word “adequate” to “reasonable,” to define the types of justifications necessary for a delay, denial, limit, or refusal to be excused.  But is there really a difference between the two terms?

The term “adequate” seemed to render FDA the ultimate finder of fact – whether the facility’s reason for a delay is “adequate” to excuse the delay is something that appears to be clearly a discretionary finding provided that such a determination is not arbitrary and capricious.  One may be tempted, therefore, to take refuge in the softer tone of “reasonable,” particularly if that person has spent time in or around a courtroom or law office where the term “reasonable” has a very specific and long-established meaning.  In the legal world “reasonable” is an objective standard – what would a reasonable person do under a given set of facts; could a reasonable jury find the defendant liable or guilty.  Here, FDA should be held to an objective standard that permits discretion only to the extent that its findings are consistent with what a reasonable finder of fact would conclude (a relatively higher standard than an arbitrary and capricious standard). 

The Final Guidance, however, is notably silent regarding what lexicon it employs.  FDA could adopt a legal definition of “reasonable” or it could just as easily decide that it has the sole discretion to determine what constitutes a “reasonable” explanation or justification for a delay, denial, limitation, or refusal.  Because these determinations will be made in practice by investigators in the field rather than attorneys, FDA will likely become its own arbiter of reasonableness.  Under such a scenario, whether there is any daylight between “adequate” and “reasonable” will be an interesting issue to follow.

* * *

The Final Guidance, thus unfortunately, creates issues rather than clarifies issues. Whether FDA will “get away” with the regulatory creep evidenced in the Final Guidance will depend on facilities holding FDA accountable to the four corners of the FDCA and not ceding ground to FDA. 

One thing that is clear, however, is that the Final Guidance is a reminder of the importance of having written internal procedures that specifically address inspectional issues such as whether and who, if anyone, is authorized to speak to FDA during an inspection and the company’s position regarding the taking of photographs and providing documents that are off-site.  When developing and implementing such policies and revising any existing policies to reflect FDA’s new Final Guidance, companies should seek input from counsel.  Once policies are developed, employees should be trained so that all employees understand the company’s positions prior to an FDA inspection.

Categories: Enforcement