FDA decides against closing food-testing labs

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Friday abandoned plans to close field laboratories that some said were vital to protecting the nation’s food supply from contamination.

The FDA, which is responsible for overseeing about 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, had proposed closing seven of its 13 labs around the country to streamline operations. The labs handle testing of food and other products.

Lawmakers had criticized the idea, saying it would hurt an already understaffed effort to identify contaminated food.

“To assure our success and allow additional time to gather input, I am cancelling plans for the rollout of all changes to our organizational structure,” FDA Associate Commissioner for Regulatory Affairs Margaret Glavin said in an e-mail to colleagues about the food labs.

FDA spokeswoman Julie Zawisza said the statement did not mean the agency had canceled its intention to reorganize the labs. “We are evaluating how to proceed with the reorganization based on forthcoming recommendations” from a presidential panel on import safety and other input, she said.

The FDA has faced intense criticism from recent safety scares involving tainted imports of Chinese seafood, wheat gluten and toothpaste. The incidents have drawn attention to the agency’s low rate of food inspections and prompted calls in Congress for more aggressive surveillance of Chinese goods.

Lawmakers said they welcomed the agency’s action.

“If it had been implemented, the FDA’s plan could have put the American public health at an even greater risk,” Rep. Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat, said in a statement.

FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach said earlier this month the closures were put on hold until after input could be received from the presidential import panel. Findings from that group are expected by September 17.