FDA says consolidation remains suspended, not canceled

Reorganization plan in limbo pending review of information including recommendations from an import safety advisory panel.

A Food and Drug Administration spokeswoman on Monday said plans to reorganize field offices and testing laboratories remain temporarily suspended, despite reports of cancellation following an announcement from a senior regulatory official.

Margaret Glavin, associate commissioner for regulatory affairs at FDA, wrote Friday in a letter to Office of Regulatory Affairs employees that she is "canceling plans for the rollout of all changes to our organizational structure."

FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach suspended the controversial program earlier this month, saying the agency would wait for the recommendations of the newly formed Interagency Working Group on Import Safety before going forward with the consolidation.

An agency spokeswoman, Kimberly Rawlings, said Monday that Glavin's use of the word cancellation "is referring to the implementation of the plan that is suspended." The plan remains in limbo, pending the review of a range of information, including the panel's recommendations, Rawlings said.

"FDA is temporarily suspending the plan to reorganize our field operations, including the lab closures, to reevaluate [the] best way to proceed in [the] context of looking at priorities, investment needs, business processes to support [the] new food safety strategy … changes from [the] President's Import Working Group," Rawlings said. Only after assessing that information can the agency "figure out what organizational changes are needed to support all this."

The Working Group on Import Safety, made up of Cabinet-level officials, was established by President Bush on July 18 to review import safety practices and to recommend improvements. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt is chairman of the group, which is scheduled to provide initial recommendations to the president in September.

The FDA reorganization, which would result in closing seven of the agency's 13 food and pharmaceutical testing laboratories and four field offices, has drawn the ire of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents FDA employees, and some members of Congress.

NTEU President Colleen Kelley called the plan "ill-conceived and unsupported" and applauded the reported cancellation of the program as "the right decision for the American people."

"The FDA never made a business case for this reorganization," Kelley said. "With the various problems that have surfaced over the past year, from pet food to peanut butter, NTEU believes FDA should invest in the labs and lab personnel, not cut back."

Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have been critical of the FDA's decision 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.