The U.S. Food and Drug Administration ought to undergo a thorough shake-up.

The need for tough action has long been clear from the needlessly long time it takes to get the FDA to approve new medications before they can be put on the market. Because of excess caution and red tape at the FDA, it sometimes takes Americans as much as a decade before they can get safe medications readily available in Europe.Now the FDA is giving new ammunition to its critics because of its limp and lethargic reaction to the discovery of a cancer-causing chemical in liquor and wine.

Three years have passed since studies detected the presence of urethane in alcoholic beverages. How serious is the risk it poses? Just ask the FDA's top toxicologist.

"Ranking substances by the threat they pose to cause cancer in humans," he says, "urethane would be first, second, or third." The degree of risk varies because different brands of the same alcoholic beverage contain different levels of urethane.

Overall, the Baltimore Sun reports, the lifetime risk of getting cancer from regular, moderate drinking of beverages containing urethane may be as high as one in 200. That's 5,000 times the amount the FDA ordinarily deems safe.

What is the FDA doing about this threat? Pathetically little. Mostly, it is relying on voluntary action by the liquor and wine industries to limit urethane. But such action does nothing about existing stocks of alcoholic beverages, and new stocks with lower levels of urethane won't be ready for consumers for at least five years, perhaps longer.

What a sorry contrast to the way Canada responded to the same problem. The Canadians acted three years ago, not only setting limits on the amount of urethane allowed in liquor and wine, but also recalling products that did not meet health standards. Many of the beverages that Canada recalled are on the shelves of U.S. liquor stores.

The very least the FDA should do is to publish its data on the amount of urethane in various beverages so American consumers can make informed choices. Even better would be action along the lines Canada has taken.

Likewise, the least Congress should do is to take a new look at the FDA with an eye to overhauling an agency that sometimes seems insufficiently concerned about the well-being of the American public.