Working group to stay mum on FDA consolidation plan

The Food and Drug Administration's plan to consolidate field offices and laboratories remains suspended after the release of an interagency group's initial report on import safety.

FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach put the consolidation plan on hold Aug. 1, saying the agency wanted to consider the recommendations of the Working Group on Import Safety, a Cabinet-level panel created by President Bush, before moving forward. The reorganization would close seven of the agency's 13 food and pharmaceutical testing laboratories and four field offices. The working group's initial report, released Monday, generally recommended a wider focused risk-based approach to import safety but did not address the consolidation plan. According to an FDA spokeswoman, the group's final action plan, to be released in November, will not discuss the reorganization either.

"The working group will not be addressing FDA's consolidation plan," the spokeswoman said.

Without an endorsement, or even an assessment, from the working group, the FDA will likely face staunch resistance if it decides to move forward with the controversial plan. The National Treasury Employees Union, representing FDA employees, has criticized the strategy, calling it misguided and unjustified. Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have been critical of any moves to cut the number of food safety analysts amid high-profile instances of food contamination and recall. Both chambers of Congress included language in their fiscal 2008 Agriculture Department spending bills that would restrict laboratory closings.

"The FDA proposal to close more than half of its labs and reorganize its district offices caused nationwide outcry," NTEU President Colleen Kelley said. "Not only was the public alarmed by the threat the proposal caused to the food safety network, but Congress was outraged as well."

Nonetheless, FDA maintained that the plan remains only temporarily suspended and that officials will use this time to reassess it and to see how it could fit in with the working group's general recommendations.

"The suspension will allow [the Office of Regulatory Affairs] to consider the field structure, new tools, systems and other investments necessary to address recommendations that may come from the president's interagency Working Group on Import Safety," the spokeswoman said.

Kelley said with public and congressional opinion turned against the reorganization, FDA should throw in the towel.

"It is time for the FDA to stop insisting that this is a temporary suspension," Kelley said. "FDA employees deserve better than having their top agency officials continue to hold out the threat that the agency may still try and move forward with a plan that is unwelcome by the American public and by Congress."

Kelley said the FDA should instead invest in its workforce in order to strengthen its ability to keep the food supply safe.

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