WHY PENALIZE PIONEERS?

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We appreciate the Food & Drug Administration's painstaking examination of new food ingredients and drugs that seek entry into the marketplace. After all, we all have to ingest the stuff and want the government to be super-careful.

On the other hand, FDA owes us full effort in getting to market the discoveries that make people's lives better-that improve health and, ultimately, lengthen and even save lives. New disease-fighting drugs are a top priority, obviously; but substances that make foods safer are important, too.

This country's high-in-fat diet contributes to heart disease, the No. 1 killer of men and women. So a development such as Procter & Gamble Co.'s olestra, a substance that tastes and cooks like natural fat but passes through the body unabsorbed-no calories and no fat-potentially is a significant breakthrough in food research.

Yet we found FDA seemingly unprepared to test and approve the ingredient, sending P&G through numerous testing detours over a 19-year period and even changing its mind on what was necessary to prove the safety of olestra.

What's most troubling in the ongoing olestra approval process we spotlighted last week is that P&G has had to go begging to keep its right to market this food ingredient exclusively once approval comes.

To get extensions on its core patents, P&G had to answer complaints not only from research experts but rival marketers-specifically Unilever, busy working on a similar product. And while some patent extensions have been signed into law, attorney Peter Barton Hutt says "even under the new statute, the intellectual property rights retained by the company are extraordinarily limited." Warns Mr Hutt: "This is clearly insufficient to induce any company to engage in this type of breakthrough food technology in the future."

That's the point. Conduct research until every safety question is satisfied; but only when that's done should the patent clock on the right to profit from all the work start ticking. That would restore the incentive for future product breakthroughs, and discourage competitors from delaying tactics that keep good products off the market.

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