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FDA closure plan raises concerns about food safety

Even fewer imports will be tested if labs are lost, a House panel is told.

July 18, 2007|Claudia Lauer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Food and Drug Administration would be unable to ensure the nation's food safety if a plan to close half of its testing laboratories goes through as suggested, a House panel was told Tuesday.

The agency has come under increased scrutiny in recent months because of a succession of well-publicized problems with food, including peanut butter contaminated with salmonella, spinach contaminated with E. coli and fish imported from China that was found to have traces of illegal antibiotics.

In testimony Tuesday before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, congressional investigators criticized the reorganization plan and said they doubted the FDA's ability to police food imports.

"The FDA lacks sufficient resources and authority to be effective," said David Nelson, chief investigator for the Energy and Commerce Committee.

In his opening statement, Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairman of the subcommittee on oversight and investigations, said the FDA inspected fewer than 1% of the food imports and took samples from a fraction of those.

Investigators said much of the problem stemmed from understaffed laboratories and the fact that field offices were not authorized to inspect shipments of products that were not on an FDA watch list. They argued that closing seven of 13 laboratories, as FDA Commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach is suggesting, would weaken the agency's ability to police imports.

"Stop the reorganization. They have given us no justification for the closures," Nelson said. "There is a lot of indication that it will cost more than it will save."

Directors from five of the targeted laboratories also testified, arguing that each of their facilities had special programs that weren't available elsewhere, including the only food irradiation testing site in Winchester, Mass.

"This will result in a mass loss of institutional knowledge and expertise at a time when the agency is trying to be proactive in our operations to prevent more emergencies," said Carol A. Heppe, director of the Cincinnati office.

Von Eschenbach said the plan was getting an early bad rap.

"I want to make it very clear; [the closures] are for one purpose and one purpose only: to bring the FDA laboratory infrastructure into the 21st century," he said. "It's going to be very painful, but we are not closing labs with the idea of eliminating functionality."

Von Eschenbach said new consolidated district offices would use state-of-the-art robotics equipment that would make testing easier and, in some cases, more portable, allowing more agents to go to sites to test products. The current system requires most samples to be sent to a laboratory for testing.

Investigators said they feared that closing the laboratories could have a negative effect on food security at ports of entry by depleting their already understaffed operations. Nelson said FDA inspectors in San Francisco had only 30 seconds -- while a freight notice flashed on a computer screen -- to decide whether a shipment needed to be inspected closely.

They said many foreign food importers had learned to get around FDA testing by shipping their products directly to cities with no agency laboratories. For example, they said, because the FDA laboratory in San Francisco has expertise in examining seafood, companies have started shipping more fish to Las Vegas.

In some cases, said Kevin S. Barstow, the committee's investigative counsel, the FDA allows questionable products to be shipped to importers, who then pay a private laboratory to test the product. He said many of the private test results were fueled by financial interests rather than safety concerns, because the private labs didn't have to be approved or accredited by the FDA.

"Every lab specialist [at the FDA] was very critical of private lab tests," he said.

In a separate hearing Tuesday, a Senate agriculture appropriations subcommittee voted to increase the FDA's funding by $186 million, including $48.4 million for new food safety measures. The Senate's proposal is $122 million above President Bush's budget proposal.

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