Why Does It Matter That Cotton Is Regulated As A Food?

It’s OK to grumble about government regulation. You don’t have to look far to find stories of silly laws, overzealous enforcement and bureaucratic nightmares that make life confusing for consumers everywhere.

But sometimes a little regulation is a good thing. When it comes to matters of public health, it’s nice to have an independent arbiter that can evaluate the relative risks and benefits of consumer products and help people make informed decisions about what they put in their bodies.

In the United States, few regulatory organizations are more important than the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA. And this sprawling agency has its hand in a pretty impressive range of businesses—including ones that don’t produce items typically thought of as food or drugs, like the cotton industry. As we’ll see, though, it might be good that crops like cotton are regulated in the same fashion as dairy and pharmaceuticals.

What Does the FDA Regulate?

According to its website, the FDA regulates “a very broad list of traditionally-recognized product categories.” That’s probably an understatement, judging by this small sampling of said categories:

  • Tobacco products, including cigarettes and smokeless tobacco
  • Vaccines, donor blood and other “biologics”
  • Medical devices and implants
  • Electronics and consumer products that emit radiation
  • Pet food and medicines
  • Cosmetics, including those containing vegetable bases like cottonseed oil

As you can see, many of these categories don’t necessarily include items you’d want to put in your mouth. In fact, given the growing importance of cottonseed oil as a food product, the FDA’s regulation of the cotton industry actually makes intuitive sense.

What Regulation Means for Consumers

Practically speaking, the FDA’s regulatory oversight of key cotton products has several benefits for consumers. Perhaps most obviously, the agency is tasked with protecting the safety of cotton products destined for human consumption. That means that every batch of cottonseed oil that rolls out of a processing plant must adhere to the strict standards of quality and purity set forth in FDA guidelines.

The agency also maintains an extensive database of scientific literature on the compounds found within regulated products. It also constantly monitors for new developments to ensure that no compounds previously regarded as safe remain in consumables after being deemed unsafe (or even questionable). In a related function, the FDA fields and investigates consumer complaints about potentially unsafe products under its jurisdiction. Looser regulatory arrangements may increase the likelihood of such problems slipping through the cracks and causing problems for long periods of time. Despite the impeccable safety record of America’s cotton and cottonseed oil producers—not to mention their peers in other agricultural disciplines—it’s nice to know that consumers have a powerful ally in their corner.

The blue jeans on your waist and the cottonseed oil in your cupboard might not cure your sniffles or quell those muscle aches, but they do come from a crop that’s regulated every bit as stringently as medicine. By setting high expectations and ensuring a safe, predictable supply of cotton and its byproducts, the FDA lets you worry less about safety and more about important things—like how those jeans look or what you’re having for dinner.