The rare admission came near the end of a six-hour hearing in which Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., grilled FDA Food Protection Commissioner David Acheson on the agency's supervision of imports amid recent food contamination problems.
"I compliment you, Dr. Acheson. You are the first person in many years to say that is what we need," DeLauro said.
The president's panel, made up of representatives from 12 departments and agencies, has not made final recommendations. But in a framework released this month, the group advocated a risk-based approach that stayed within the framework of FDA's current powers and resources.
DeLauro did not ask Acheson what new authorities the agency might seek, and Acheson refused to speak to reporters after the hearing.
"They've had a long day and we need to get them out of here," FDA spokesman Michael Herndon said, referring to Acheson and a regional operations official.
DeLauro asked Acheson if the agency needs new powers while questioning him about FDA's inability to ban food from specific countries.
Instead, FDA can issue an import alert that requires food coming from flagged countries to submit paperwork requirements before its goods can enter the country. A food firm is cleared of the requirement once it crosses the border five times without a problem.
FDA is working on an overhaul of its food safety program slated to be made public soon that likely will include a need for new powers, Acheson said.
"I'm a bit taken aback, to be honest with you, Dr. Acheson," DeLauro said. "What has FDA been doing if we're starting at the beginning of this process?"
DeLauro said that since 1994, FDA has considered and mostly abandoned three different tactics for beefing up import safeguards. These include establishing equivalency standards the Agriculture Department implemented in 1967.
The chairwoman was concerned that FDA lacks a process to formally evaluate other countries' food safety systems. Acheson admitted FDA should be learning about the water quality in other countries and the manufacturing practices in foreign facilities, not just inspecting food at the borders.
DeLauro tried to corner Acheson into answering whether FDA should collect user fees from the import industry or whether the number of ports importers can use should be limited.
Both provisions are included in import safety legislation introduced by House Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats. Acheson ducked the first question and would only say that restricting ports could receive a negative economic analysis because the action likely would lead prohibited ports to shut down.