(June 30) Thinking about Martha Stewart and Emil Corwin got me to considering the Food and Drug Administration.

You know Martha Stewart, the homemaking guru, but you probably don’t know Corwin, who used to work at the FDA. Stewart’s troubles began because of the FDA. It refused to approve an anti-cancer drug, which threatened the stock she dumped the day before the FDA announcement. Stewart made a little profit from the deal, but lost hundreds of millions subsequently, has been indicted for insider trading and making false statements and has greatly tarnished her pristine reputation. Not a good deal.

Of course, if she had asked anyone familiar with the FDA they would have told her to be wary of investing in products and gadgets that require an FDA approval.

You may not get that approval. Folks who think regulatory agencies are there to serve industry are often right, but that’s not necessarily true with the FDA. The FDA deals with the food, drugs, biologicals, cosmetics and health devices that affect every consumer and every farm animal. That’s an awesome responsibility. If the Securities and Exchange Commission messes up, people lose some money. If the FDA messes up, people may lose their lives.

That was brought home some years back when I met Lester Crawford. Today he is the No. 2 administrator at the FDA. He was No. 1 until President Bush passed over him to appoint a new commissioner, which pushed Crawford from acting commissioner to deputy. Crawford was the right person because he knows drugs and the food business backward and forward. He has run every food-related health agency. Still, he didn’t get to keep the top job. That’s politics.

When I met him he was the nation’s chief veterinarian. He’d just been named to head the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine. I asked Crawford about his chief concern.

He said he worried he would approve some product or drug that 20 years from now would prove to be terribly harmful. After all, human drugs are first animal drugs because of the testing process, and many animal drugs become human drugs because they are ingested in the meat and poultry we eat. You’ve taken animal drugs without knowing it.

The FDA is always mired in controversy. It might be over a food, a foodborne illness, a pesticide residue, a nutrition claim, a “wonder” drug, a new artificial heart. The FDA may be the only agency to regularly spark riots. AIDS activists have attacked its huge office in suburban Washington, D.C., the Parklawn Building, the Pentagon of food and drug safety.

A lot of regulatory agencies have fallen on hard times, given the zeal for deregulation.

Let business and industry go, let them be free. That works in many areas, but not in food and drugs. The public consistently says it wants an independent referee when it comes to food and drug safety. When you put something in your body it is pretty darn personal. People don’t want to rely on the good will of strangers. They trust, but they want to verify.

The FDA has maintained its position while other agencies fell back. As one public affairs expert recently pointed out, not many people want to work for a regulatory agency in an era of deregulation. It seems like a dead-end job. That’s not true for the FDA.

It has more work to do than ever.

The FDA is certainly not a perfect agency. It makes mistakes, and its mistakes can be catastrophic. It is rather conservative in its approach. That gets people complaining — it’s too slow in approving products. It impedes commerce. Well, if it does its job in haste or poorly, commerce will be the least of its worries, and the company involved will wish the FDA had acted cautiously and prudentially. Product liability lawsuits are costly, and losing your reputation won’t help your product.

Back when the FDA was writing guidelines for fruit and vegetable safety I thought it was way behind on the learning curve and needed to understand a lot more before it acted. It seemed to be regulating first, asking questions later. But that eventually got sorted out, and the FDA began to listen to the produce industry and its groups.

It is good if people trust the FDA. That trust rebounds to the food and drug industries, including the fruit and vegetable industry. The FDA can certify that produce is mostly within legal limits for pesticide residues, that its nutrition claims are valid, that the industry has a safety system in place and that the food supply is secure. That’s good as gold.

Now, about Emil Corwin. The other day Corwin celebrated his 100th birthday by giving a piano recital of classical music. It was written up in the newspaper.

I know Emil. He was one of the chief spokesmen for the FDA. He was an expert on food issues and other topics. He was a source for news at the FDA.

The last time I talked to him in his official FDA capacity was in 1999. He was only 96 back then. He was the oldest employee of the federal government.

Yet Emil was sharp. He was about as lucid as most 60-year-olds.

Most of us won’t be working at 96, and a lot of us won’t be doing much of anything. We won’t be playing classical piano. We may be playing a harp.

So was it diet, genes, clean living? Maybe all of the above and more.

Maybe Emil read and followed his own press releases.