FDA suspends plan to close field labs

Aug 3, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach announced this week the postponement of a plan to close about half of the FDA's field laboratories until the agency hears the recommendations of President Bush's import safety working group.

Von Eschenbach had said the FDA laboratory reorganization would greatly enhance the agency's ability to assess and rank risks to better utilize inspection, enforcement, and analytical resources, the Associated Press (AP) reported on Jul 17.

However, the next day President Bush issued an executive order establishing a cabinet-level interagency working group to promote the safety of imported products. The panel was created in light of recent food contamination and other product safety problems linked to imported goods. The order instructs the group to report back in September unless an extension is deemed necessary.

Margaret Glavin, the FDA's deputy commissioner for regulatory affairs, said the agency's proposal is to close 7 of its 13 labs, CongressDaily reported yesterday. She wrote in an e-mail to her staff that the FDA might reconsider the lab reorganization plan, as well as a proposed consolidation of 20 district offices into 16, depending on the findings of the president's import safety working group, the report said.

Von Eschenbach, in an Aug 1 AP report, said he wanted to make sure that before proceeding, the FDA was "doing the right thing and doing it in the right way."

Some lawmakers, however, oppose the lab consolidation plan, and CongressDaily reported that House and Senate agricultural appropriations bills include language that would stop the FDA from shuttering the labs until it can prove that the closures are warranted.

Bart Stupak, a Democratic congressman from Michigan, told CongressDaily that the FDA, in reams of documents submitted to a house subcommittee, has not explained why consolidating the labs makes sense from safety or cost perspectives.

"Whether they are closed today or 90 days from now, closing the FDA's field labs and consolidating the district offices, which places more power in Washington, makes no sense for America's food safety," Stupak was quoted as saying.

Stupak and John D. Dingell, another Democratic congressman from Michigan, asked whether the lab consolidation plan represents a step toward privatizing or outsourcing the testing of imported foods, the AP reported.

In a Jul 31 letter to the FDA, Stupak and Dingell wrote that they couldn't fathom why the FDA would contract out a critical import testing program, "particularly in light of the numerous recent incidences of harmful foods exported from other countries," CongressDaily reported.

Von Eschenbach denied that the closings relate to outsourcing, but he later said the agency would consider certifying or credentialing private labs to do some testing, the AP report said.

See also:

Jul 18 press release on Bush executive order

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