Last month I reported on the pain being felt by alternative medicine practitioners in the UK as a result of the activism of Nightingale Collaboration. Part of that effort was streamlined via a piece of software created by Simon Perry called Fishbarrel. This tool modifies Google's free Chrome web browser to provide simple ways to highlight dubious claims, comment on them, and automatically gather them into a properly formatted government complaint. I blogged about Fishbarrel back when it was released.
Initially Fishbarrel only supported agencies in the UK, and Simon has gradually added support for other countries. I'm pleased to relay the news that the Fishbarrel software can now be used by skeptics in the United States to file complaints with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Go to Simon's blog post on Fishbarrel to download the updated software and view the tutorial video.
If you previously downloaded it, you'll need to download the new version to get the US support. Once installed, a button will appear in your browser that looks like a rubber duck. Click it and pick Options to tell it you live in the USA and fill in other useful settings that you can learn more about in the tutorial.
Now, skeptics must keep in mind what FDA does and does not regulate in order to make these complaints effective. The agency regulates the labeling and advertising of prescription drugs and devices prescribed by a medical practitioner. Other advertising claims and anything involving other product categories would be a matter for the FTC or perhaps even state agencies. (Fishbarrel does not support those agencies yet).
Herbals and other vitamins and supplements covered under the DSHEA law of 1994 may be a prime target for this. Under the law vendors are allowed to make vague structure or function claims such as "supports a healthy metabolism" or "promotes wellness." However they are not allowed to make specific claims such as "cures asthma" or "eliminates cancer." That goes beyond what DSHEA allows and skeptics should be seeking out these violations. You can highlight the offending phrases with Fishbarrel and quickly make a report.
More tips on what to report and what not to report can be found with the FDA reporting form on their site. I encourage discussion of things to look out for and report in the comments below.
Thank you to Simon Perry for Fishbarrel, and William London for tips on where to focus FDA complaints.
Tim Farley is a JREF Research Fellow in electronic media. He is the creator of the website What's the Harm and blogs at Skeptical Software Tools. He researched the dates in JREF's Today in Skeptic History iPhone app and has presented at three TAMs. You can follow him on Twitter here.