Food safety agency asked to explain proposed analyst cuts

House Energy and Commerce Committee leaders want the Food and Drug Administration to answer for a proposal to cut 196 food safety analysts at a time when contaminated spinach, peanut butter and pet food have led to high-profile recalls and deaths.

Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak, D-Mich., wrote FDA Friday that they were shocked to learn the agency planned to cut microbiologists, chemists and engineers at laboratories around the country that test food samples.

"This number represents 37 percent of the total number of lab analysts currently working in the Office of Regulatory Affairs laboratories," the letter states. "This slashing of analysts comes after an already 24 percent reduction in lab analysts between 2003 and 2007. To say the least, these numbers are deeply disturbing."

FDA spokesman Doug Arbesfeld said the agency does not plan to cut any positions, though he did say it could decide, for example, if its goal would be better served with more inspectors and fewer analysts.

FDA has been under fire for inspecting a small percentage of imported food. Arbesfeld stressed the agency's ability to analyze samples would not suffer.

The Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee is probing FDA's ability to secure the safety of the food supply, and is considering issuing subpoenas to compel FDA staff to testify before the subcommittee if lawmakers do not get the information they are looking for in the next two weeks, a committee aide said.

Dingell, Stupak, Energy and Commerce ranking member Joe Barton, R-Texas, and Oversight and Investigations ranking member Edward Whitfield, R-Ky., demanded in February that FDA suspend plans to close seven of its 13 labs around the country that test food samples from inspections and analyze samples during food safety crises.

The letter asked FDA for documents regarding the closures, which the agency sent, including one titled "New Organization Staffing" from December that outlined the cuts in analyst positions.

When news came out in February that FDA might close some labs, officials said most lab staff would be transferred to remaining labs.

Arbesfeld said that still is the plan under the proposal, but the agency does expect some people to decide not to move and some positions to be switched. The lab closings affect 250 positions. Arbesfeld said he did not know if FDA staff had spoken to Energy and Commerce leaders since the letter was sent Friday.

The Association of Public Health Laboratories met with FDA in April; a spokeswoman said association leaders were convinced FDA will be able to handle the workload under the new organization plan.

A former top FDA official blamed Congress for the need to consolidate the labs.

"The budget cuts [that] FDA's undergone in recent years has caused them to do fewer inspections, and the equipment they have in these labs aren't used because they don't have the people," said William Hubbard, former associate FDA policy commissioner.

FDA has lost 1,000 employees over the last decade because of inadequate appropriations, Hubbard said. The agency has gained positions from prescription drug user fees, but the funding is only used in FDA's drug center and mainly for new drug review.

Dean Clive, a principal investigator at the Food Safety Lab at the University of California, Davis, also blamed Congress for not giving FDA enough money for all it expects the agency to do. Clive has served as a food safety consultant to FDA.

"Congress responds to whatever they've read that morning in the newspaper, and they have very unrealistic expectations," Clive said.

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