Appropriators put the brakes on FDA consolidation plan

Congress is putting the brakes on FDA's plan to close seven of 13 laboratories throughout the country that play crucial roles in testing food and pharmaceuticals when threats crop up.

The House and Senate Agriculture spending bills approved by both chambers' Appropriations committees on Thursday would prohibit the agency from moving forward with its plan, despite FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach's assurances that lab consolidation would not weaken the agency's ability to protect the food and drug supplies.

"It is baffling that as concerns about food safety mount, and there is increasing evidence that our food safety net already has gaping holes, the FDA would eliminate the few food safety protections that remain in place," House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Chairman Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said. "Despite repeated requests from my subcommittee, FDA has failed to provide any analysis justifying its radical reorganization plan."

Stupak and Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., had written appropriators asking for them to prevent the lab closings in the spending bills.

Managers at some of FDA's labs and district offices targeted in the reorganization testified at a hearing Stupak held last week on food safety.

FDA also plans to close four of 20 district offices.

The managers told lawmakers what functions their labs and districts perform and painted a picture of low morale.

"A lot of employees are so unhappy that we are hearing that we are going to have a mass loss of institutional knowledge because of this reorganization," said Carol Heppe, director of the Cincinnati district office.

Von Eschenbach said that although change might be painful for workers who either must relocate or find different jobs, consolidation is necessary to update technology and maximize efficiency.

He gave the example of a lab in New York that tests area seafood by smelling samples. "Our transformation proposal calls for streamlining management in the field," according to von Eschenbach's prepared statement for the hearing. "Doing this will reduce management and overhead costs, while allowing us to support the same, or even greater, number of inspections and to invest in assuring that our employees have the skills, tools and training they need to do their jobs."

Von Eschenbach added that FDA pays for 40 percent more lab space than it needs to conduct its field work.

An investigation by Energy and Commerce investigators found that some labs targeted for closure have expertise investigators did not believe could be duplicated.

For instance, the San Francisco lab specializes in seafood imports and the Kansas lab plays a major role in rapid analysis during a crisis.

Also, in Puerto Rico, where a major portion of U.S. pharmaceuticals are manufactured, many inspections cannot be done without a lab analyst, the investigation found.

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