July 17, 2007 / 10:00 PM / 12 years ago

FDA lab closures may mean more unsafe food: lawmakers

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S Food and Administration’s plan to consolidate laboratories used for testing food and other products would make it even more difficult for the understaffed agency to protect Americans from unsafe food, lawmakers said on Tuesday.

The FDA, which is responsible for overseeing about 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, has proposed closing seven of its 13 laboratories around the country to streamline operations.

“FDA’s food safety program is woefully understaffed — entry reviewers, investigators and compliance officers simply cannot keep up with the flood of imported food,” said Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat who is chairman of a House subcommittee reviewing FDA and food safety.

Closing laboratories “would likely expose Americans to even more danger from unsafe food, particularly imports,” he added.

FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach defended the plan, saying it was necessary to help the agency adapt to a surge in imports, new food pathogens, increased consumer demands for fresh produce and other challenges that have placed a large burden on the current regulatory process.

“This is intended for one purpose: That is to bring FDA laboratory infrastructure into the 21st century,” von Eschenbach told the lawmakers at a hearing. Closing the labs will not cut jobs, but rather change where staff is deployed to inspect products, he said.

“We must rapidly and radically change. But change is difficult ... and it is also painful to implement,” he said.

The FDA has faced intense criticism from recent safety scares involving imports of Chinese seafood, wheat gluten and toothpaste. The incidents drew attention to the agency’s low rate of food inspections.

As U.S. food imports grow 15 percent a year, the FDA inspected about 1 percent of the goods under its purview in fiscal 2006.

An investigation by the House Energy and Commerce Committee found the FDA lacks enough resources and authority to oversee food imports. In San Francisco, for example, four reviewers are responsible for overseeing thousands of food and medical items daily, with each person seeing about one every 30 seconds.

The report released by David Nelson, senior investigator for the committee, said the FDA should abandon the proposed lab closures because the agency would lose experienced employees and it has failed to show the consolidation would save money.

“What I’m seeing is a hollowing out of the FDA,” William Hubbard, who served as associate commissioner before leaving the FDA in 2005, told the subcommittee.

The FDA has run into domestic food safety issues as well, with a string of food poisoning cases tied to peanut butter, lettuce and bagged spinach.

This has prompted consumer groups, lawmakers and others to question whether the FDA is too passive in overseeing food safety and needs more authority to conduct investigations. Currently, the FDA can not order a food recall unless it is infant formula.

“FDA has largely abdicated its regulatory role to the food industry itself, which is expected to police itself” said Rep. John Dingell, chairman of the House panel. “The federal food safety system is in dire need of reform.”

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