Ever wonder what happens when you complain to the Food and Drug Administration that a food, cosmetic, or supplement might have made you sick? The report you fill out gets reviewed by the agency, then filed away in a database. Multiple reports about a particular product can prompt an investigation, but the full database of complaints has remained inaccessible to consumers—until now.

Earlier this week, the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) took an important step toward transparency by making all of these complaints available to the public via its website.

This means that for the first time, consumers, physicians, and manufacturers will be able to search for complaints about specific products and investigate whether a particular issue has cropped up before.

"It will also permit journalists and researchers to hold the FDA accountable," says Pieter Cohen, M.D., an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who studies dietary supplement safety. "This will allow us to answer the question: Has the FDA moved against products for which they have received reports of serious adverse events?"

Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports, has advocated for the agency to make this information more readily accessible. William Wallace, a Consumers Union policy analyst, calls the move "a welcome development for consumers."

“This additional transparency may help consumers learn about potentially dangerous food, supplements, and cosmetics faster than they would otherwise," he says. 

Indispensable Information

From Jan. 1, 2004, through Sept. 30, 2016, the FDA's CFSAN received 56,574 "adverse event" reports. Of these, 26,840 were complaints about food products, 25,412 were about dietary supplements, and 4,322 were about cosmetics. (The agency has a separate reporting system for drugs.)

These reports of suspected bad reactions mostly come from healthcare professionals, including physicians, pharmacists, and nurses—although consumers, their family members, and lawyers also file reports.

In the past the only way to search for a report was to file a Freedom of Information Act request and wait weeks or months for a response. Now consumers can download the reports in spreadsheet form, open them in Excel or Google Docs, and search for a particular product (such as a type of mascara) or a dietary supplement ingredient (like green tea extract) to look for any problems that have been reported.

Admittedly, the current website and spreadsheet are not easy to search through. But the FDA expects to have a more user-friendly platform available within the next year or two, says Lyndsay Meyer, a spokeswoman for the agency.

What to Know Before You Use

Consumers who download the database should keep a few important caveats in mind. 

For the most part, there's no mandatory reporting of complaints, so this should not be seen as a comprehensive list of a product's potential problems. 

Furthermore, popular products will naturally have more reports associated with them, simply because more people are using them. This does not mean that those products are more dangerous, and the database has no way of showing what percentage of users of a product reported any given issue.

Consumers also can't tell from the reports alone whether a particular product caused the problem associated with it. Until a report is investigated by the FDA, there’s no way to be sure a given health problem was a response to a product and not the result of something else entirely (a pre-existing illness, for example).

“If you find one adverse event for a product, it could just be chance,” says Duffy MacKay, N.D., senior vice president, scientific and regulatory affairs, for the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a trade association representing the supplement industry. He suggested that consumers pay close attention to the consumer advisory notices the FDA releases after a product has been investigated and found to be dangerous.

If you experience a health problem that you believe may have been caused by a food, dietary supplement, or cosmetic, report it to the FDA (after seeking any necessary medical attention). You can download the newly available database of reported adverse events here.