President Bush took a potentially useful step last week, appointing a cabinet-level committee to find ways to ensure the safety of imported food and other products. But his actions would be a lot more credible if the administration had not been cutting the staff and budget of food safety programs at the Food and Drug Administration while also planning to eliminate half of the agency’s laboratories.
Hearings before a House oversight subcommittee raised serious questions about the F.D.A.’s ability to protect the public against contaminated or adulterated foods. William Hubbard, a former top agency official who consults for a coalition of industry and consumer groups, told the committee that the F.D.A. has lost some 200 food scientists and 700 field inspectors over five years, exactly the wrong direction when food imports are skyrocketing. He also noted that the small budget increase the White House has proposed for food safety next year would be a decrease after accounting for inflation.
As if that weren’t discouraging enough, the committee’s chief investigator described how porous the current safety shield is. Agency personnel, he said, inspect less than 1 percent of all imported foods and conduct laboratory analyses on only a tiny fraction of those. Overwhelmed entry reviewers at one field office have so many items to screen that they typically have less than 30 seconds to decide whether an import needs closer scrutiny. Importers also learn to game the system by sending goods to lax entry points or mislabeling them. And they are allowed to take possession of suspect goods and arrange testing by private laboratories whose work is often shoddy or driven by financial concerns.
The F.D.A. insists that its plan to close 7 of the agency’s 13 laboratories will actually improve its capabilities, by allowing greater investment in modern equipment and training at the six remaining laboratories. That could conceivably be true, but the House investigator worries that there could be a tremendous loss of talent when laboratory analysts resign rather than be relocated. Congress and its research arm, the Government Accountability Office, will need to determine if this is a genuine move toward modernizing some aging laboratories, or a step that could further weaken the F.D.A.
NY Times editorial July 24, 2007
Say, there's a great idea... defund the FDA and then re-create it. Who is making the money on this deal?