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Even with increased funding, FDA closes half its food safety labs

Thursday, October 18, 2007 by: David Gutierrez, staff writer
Tags: the FDA, food safety, food imports

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(NewsTarget) A study by the House Energy and Commerce Committee has strongly criticized an FDA plan to close seven of its 13 food and product testing laboratories in order to centralize operations and save money. The report concluded that the FDA should abandon the plan.

The FDA is currently responsible for overseeing approximately 80 percent of the U.S. food supply -- including imports, which have been growing at 15 percent per year. In 2006, the agency only inspected 1 percent of the food it was responsible for; according to the House investigation, product reviewers in San Francisco are so understaffed that they are only able to devote approximately 30 seconds to each item inspected.

Recent food safety issues with lettuce, peanut butter and spinach, as well as imports of Chinese toothpaste, seafood and wheat gluten, have heightened calls to change the way the FDA does business.

According to FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach, the proposed cutbacks are necessary in order to adapt to increasing imports, growing demand for fresh produce and new food-borne pathogens. He claims that no jobs will be lost from the closings, but that employees will merely be reassigned.

But the House committee found no evidence that the lab consolidation would save money, and concluded that it would, in fact, lead to the loss of experienced employees.

"FDA's food safety program is woefully understaffed," said Rep. Bart Stupak. "[The new plan] would likely expose Americans to even more danger from unsafe food, particularly imports."

Not all the FDA's obstacles are related to staffing or finances, however. The agency currently only has the authority to recall infant formula, prompting lawmakers and advocacy groups to ask if the agency needs more power.

"FDA has largely advocated its regulatory role to the food industry itself," said Rep. John Dingell. "The federal food safety system is in dire need of reform."

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