FDA adds 104 staffers to food safety branch

Sep 12, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says it has hired 104 people in its Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) in the past 5 months as part of a surge that has brought more than 1,300 new employees to the agency.

The newly hired CFSAN personnel are filling 91 new positions and 13 existing vacancies, according to a fact sheet that the FDA provided by e-mail. The additions amount to a 10% increase in the center's staff, according to a Sep 11 Associated Press (AP) report.

In all, the FDA said it has filled 1,317 positions since it announced a major hiring initiative on Apr 30. The agency has 1,005 new employees on board, with another 158 due to begin by Sep 28. The rest of the candidates have accepted job offers but are still going through security procedures.

In announcing the hiring push in April, the FDA said it was needed to implement the FDA Amendments Act of 2007 and two agency initiatives unveiled in the fall of 2007: the Food Protection Plan and the Import Safety Plan.

The report of the staff increase comes after a summer of food safety turmoil linked mainly to the widespread and prolonged Salmonella outbreak associated with Mexican hot peppers. The FDA and other federal agencies drew considerable criticism because they initially suspected tomatoes as the culprit, and it took several weeks to determine that peppers were involved.

More than 850 of the 1,005 new staff members are in scientific and medical fields, including chemists, biologists, pharmacologists, medical officers, consumer safety officers, statisticians, general health scientists, and microbiologists, the FDA said. But no breakdown of the types of jobs included in the 104 CFSAN positions was available today.

The hiring surge includes 245 staffers in the FDA's Office of Regulatory Affairs, which fields inspectors of food and other regulated products. Of the 245 jobs, 111 are new positions, the FDA said.

About half of all the new employees—663—are joining the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER), which evaluates new drug applications and monitors the safety of licensed drugs.

Staff additions at the FDA's other branches include 133 at the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, 116 at the Center for Devices and Radiological Health, 34 at the Center for Veterinary Medicine, and 22 at the National Center for Toxicological Research.

Overall, there are 770 new positions and 547 "backfills," the agency said.

About 500 of the 1,317 new employees will be paid with funds from user fees the FDA charges firms seeking FDA approval for new drugs and devices, according to the fact sheet. "No funding will be diverted from other programs to hire new personnel," the statement says.

The FDA has a total of 10,144 employees, including 700 Commissioned Corps members. About 2,131 positions are funded by user fees this year, the agency said.

In launching the hiring drive, the FDA said it had been granted direct-hire authority, which saves time by eliminating "certain rating and ranking preferences" when filling jobs for which there is a critical need.

Last December a special FDA committee reported that the agency had been badly weakened by a combination of ever-increasing responsibilities, inadequate funding, and a static work force over the past 20 years. The committee said the FDA had an obsolete information technology system and was losing its ability to keep up with scientific advances.

Some independent FDA observers quoted in the AP report called the new hiring push only a first step, though a sorely needed one.

"This is really just bringing them back to where they were in earlier years," said William Hubbard, a former FDA associate commissioner who now leads a group lobbying for sustained increases in the agency's budget. "It restores losses that they have incurred, but they still have a long way to go to where they can make improvements."

Arthur Levin, director of the Center for Medical Consumers in New York, said the FDA's recruiting shows that public service is still attractive for highly specialized professionals, according to the AP. But he cautioned that the FDA has a history of letting such gains slip away, saying the agency hired more food inspectors after the attacks of Sep 11, 2001, but then gradually trimmed the program.

See also:

Apr 30 CIDRAP News story "Health group urges overhaul of US food safety system"
http://www.cidrap.umn.edu/cidrap/content/fs/food/news/apr3008tfah.html

Apr 30 FDA news release about the plan to hire 1,300
http://www.fda.gov/bbs/topics/NEWS/2008/NEW01829.html

Dec 5, 2007, CIDRAP News story "Report says stingy funding has put FDA in crisis"
http://www.cidrap.umn.edu/cidrap/content/fs/food/news/dec0407fda.html

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