business news in context, analysis with attitude

The Los Angeles Times reports that in testimony yesterday, Congressional investigators said that if a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) plan to cut the number of testing laboratories in half is implemented, the FDA will be unable to ensure the safety of the nation’s food supply.

"Stop the reorganization. They have given us no justification for the closures," said David Nelson, chief investigator for the Energy and Commerce Committee. "There is a lot of indication that it will cost more than it will save."

The Times writes, “Directors from five of the targeted laboratories also testified, arguing that each of their facilities had special programs that weren't available elsewhere, including the only food irradiation testing site in Winchester, Mass.”

FDA Commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach defended the closures: "I want to make it very clear; [the closures] are for one purpose and one purpose only: to bring the FDA laboratory infrastructure into the 21st century. It's going to be very painful, but we are not closing labs with the idea of eliminating functionality.”

The Times reports: “Investigators said they feared that closing the laboratories could have a negative effect on food security at ports of entry by depleting their already understaffed operations. Nelson said FDA inspectors in San Francisco had only 30 seconds — while a freight notice flashed on a computer screen — to decide whether a shipment needed to be inspected closely.

“They said many foreign food importers had learned to get around FDA testing by shipping their products directly to cities with no agency laboratories. For example, they said, because the FDA laboratory in San Francisco has expertise in examining seafood, companies have started shipping more fish to Las Vegas.

“In some cases … the FDA allows questionable products to be shipped to importers, who then pay a private laboratory to test the product. He said many of the private test results were fueled by financial interests rather than safety concerns, because the private labs didn't have to be approved or accredited by the FDA.”

Meanwhile, the Washington Post this morning reports that the Bush administration is saying – though not on the record or for attribution – that it will be “forming a panel on import safety to be chaired by Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt that will include other Cabinet officers.

“Speaking on condition of anonymity because the group has not been announced, the (White House) official said the panel will look for deficiencies and gaps in the system for inspecting imported products and report to President Bush within 60 days. The official said the panel is not aimed solely at China.”
KC's View:
If nothing else, the Bush White House and the FDA have a timing and public relations issue. It is a little tough to defend lab closures at a time when a number of imported foods and ingredients have proven to be contaminated and have caused people and animals to get sick.

I have little doubt that the existing FDA system is antiquated, if not obsolete. But I also tend to think that the lab closures may be more about financial efficiencies rather than effectiveness.

The ultimate loser will be the American consumer, no matter what decision is made on the labs. And I’m not convinced that yet another panel or working group will make a difference – it may well depend on who is on the panel, what their attitudes are, and whether those attitudes fit with the predispositions of the administration.

I’ve said here before that I hate to see food safety become a political football. By creating a working panel that is supposed to make recommendations, the Bush administration may be trying to control the ball.