Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Clear Day 24° Clear
News >  Nation/World

Lawmaker says FDA is failing

Renae Merle and Michael Abramowitz Washington Post

WASHINGTON – The Food and Drug Administration came under withering criticism by a House panel Tuesday for its handling of recent food-safety violations, and the Bush administration later disclosed plans to establish a working group to review the safety of food and other imports.

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s oversight and investigations subcommittee, said the FDA’s food-safety program is woefully understaffed. “Entry reviewers, investigators and compliance officers simply cannot keep up with the flood of imported food,” he said.

Acknowledging the challenge it faces, the FDA said it is working on a plan to improve its system of ensuring food safety. The FDA must change “rapidly and radically” to keep up with the increasing amount of imported food, Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach told the subcommittee.

With concern mounting because of recent incidents involving not only tainted food but also toothpaste, tires and other products from China, a White House official said the administration is 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 the condition of anonymity because the group has not been announced, the 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.

“We obviously get a large number of imports from China and a large number of complaints – but there are a large number of other countries as well,” the official said. “The aim is to ensure that the appropriate systems and assets are in place so that the products Americans find on their store shelves are safe and effective. Not just food and drugs – also products.”

The FDA inspects less than 1 percent of the imported food it is responsible for monitoring – including seafood, fruits and vegetables – and only a small fraction of those inspections include taking samples of products for testing, subcommittee investigators found. In San Francisco, FDA employees who review hundreds of shipments a day have an average of 30 seconds to decide whether each needs further investigation, according to subcommittee investigators.

Last month, the FDA began requiring Chinese importers of five types of seafood, including catfish, to show that their products had been tested for banned antibiotics. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, about 13 percent of the average American’s diet is imported food, and imports of FDA-regulated food have more than doubled since 2000, to 9 million shipments in 2006. That includes a 350 percent increase in the value of U.S. imports of Chinese agricultural and seafood products, from $880 million in 1996 to $4 billion in 2006.

The subcommittee directed most of its criticism at an FDA proposal to close seven of its 13 laboratories, including one that specializes in detecting radiological elements in food. The closings would exacerbate problems in the FDA’s food safety programs and have not been properly explained, subcommittee members said. The FDA relies on private laboratories to test suspicious imports but has no system to certify or regulate them.

“I don’t think you’re going to save anything with these closures. It is about consolidation of power,” said David Nelson, the subcommittee’s senior investigator.

The reorganization plan, including the lab closings, would help the agency modernize and streamline itself, von Eschenbach said. “I want to make it very clear this is intended for one purpose and one purpose only, and that is to bring FDA’s laboratory infrastructure into the 21st century,” he said.

Stupak said the FDA paid $9.5 million in bonuses last year, almost as much as the extra $10 million the agency was given for food-safety programs. “The money that should be going into food safety is going to bonuses in another part of FDA,” Stupak said. “What is another $10 million going to do if they’re going to give it away anyway?”

Von Eschenbach defended its bonuses, saying most of them helped the FDA keep critical employees. But, he said, the agency has established a committee to look at the bonus system. Last year’s bonuses totaled less than the $13 million handed out in 2005 but were up from $3 million in 2002, according to figures provided by the subcommittee.

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox

Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.