FDA suspends plan to consolidate inspection laboratories

Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach said Wednesday he is halting temporarily an agency proposal to close seven of its 13 labs around the country that test food and drugs for safety.

Agency spokeswoman Julie Zawisza said von Eschenbach first wants to consider recommendations from a new Cabinet-level import panel created by the president. The panel is scheduled to make recommendations in September.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has been investigating FDA's proposal to close the labs.

"Not once, in the 70,000 pages of documents that our subcommittee received from the FDA, does the FDA justify why this reorganization plan makes sense from either a safety or a cost standpoint," Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said Wednesday. "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."

Lab staff analyzes imported food tagged for inspection and helps test potentially contaminated food during an emergency.

A letter Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., and Stupak sent FDA Tuesday questions whether FDA intends to close the labs so it can outsource the work to private companies. The letter says the committee just learned of a proposal to evaluate independent lab testing as an alternative to FDA testing.

"We find it inconceivable that FDA would contract out a critical program to importers, particularly in light of numerous recent incidences of harmful foods exported from other countries," the letter states.

The head of the union representing FDA employees said the temporary move does not go far enough.

"This is a welcome step, but a temporary halt to a misguided plan is not enough," said National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley. "The idea of closing the labs needs to be scrapped."

Kelley offered to sit down with FDA to develop a plan that she thought would upgrade the agency's food and drug safety efforts.

An internal e-mail from Margaret Glavin, FDA's deputy commissioner for regulatory affairs, said FDA also will halt its proposal to consolidate 20 district offices into 16.

"This suspension will allow us to consider our field structure in light of recommendations that may come from the president's Interagency Working Group on Import Safety, and action items that are under consideration to improve oversight of the food supply, as well as valuable input from you, Members of Congress, and other stakeholders," Glavin wrote staff.

The House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations bills included provisions that would stop FDA from closing the labs until it proves it is necessary.

Stupak plans to introduce an amendment on the House floor including more binding language that would affect the district offices, according to a statement from his office Wednesday.

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