2 House members question FDA

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THE WASHINGTON TIMES Two senior members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee told the Food and Drug Administration they are concerned over what they say is a plan to “drastically cut” Food and Drug Administration laboratory analysts, although an FDA spokesman suggested that the letter is based on a misunderstanding of an agency proposal.

With food imports skyrocketing and the U.S. public seeming to be exposed to a rising level of unsafe food, the two House members said they were “shocked to learn” that the FDA planned to cut 196 microbiologists, chemists and engineers, 37 percent of analysts now in Office of Regulatory Affairs laboratories.

The comments are contained in a June 15 letter from committee Chairman John D. Dingell, and oversight and investigations subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak, both Michigan Democrats, to FDA Commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach.

The letter comes amid rising concerns over the safety of Chinese food and drug imports. Mr. Dingell and Mr. Stupak were among four members of the committee who earlier this month called on the Bush administration to consider banning food imports from China if the FDA could not ensure their safety.

In last week’s letter, the two House members cited a Dec. 11 document called “New Organization Staffing” in expressing their concerns over the cuts.

They asked the FDA to describe samples the FDA would not be able to analyze because of the reduction in the number of analysts and the type of FDA import or domestic inspections the agency now does that involve taking samples that would not be able to rely on FDA lab analysis.

FDA spokesman Doug Arbesfeld said yesterday that the agency is considering a proposal to modernize its field laboratories and that although the proposal could involve some job shifting, the number of laboratory tests will not drop.

Mr. Arbesfeld said the FDA has 13 field laboratories but believes it can improve its performance by eliminating seven by increasing the concentration of people, collaboration among them and efficiency. Although he said the plan would not save money in the short term, in the longer term it could free money now used for rent for expenses such as equipment and training.

Cutting the seven current labs, he said, would affect the equivalent of 250 full-time positions. If the proposal goes into effect, the FDA would offer the workers a job in another laboratory. Some are not likely to want to move, but in those cases, the agency will try to offer them a job in the same city, he said.

Some employees would change jobs, he said. Some analysts may become inspectors, because of increased efficiency in analysis and because the FDA needs more inspectors. He stressed that the number of analyses would not change.

When asked how many analyst positions might be eliminated or changed, he said, “We don’t know, but certainly not 196.”

Mr. Arbesfeld said the 196 figure came from a planning session at which that number was considered, but he said, “it’s not in the proposal, it’s not written in stone, it was just brainstorming, in essence,” adding that he did not think the FDA would cut the number of analysts by that much.

The document the House members referred to was a planning document, not a proposal, he said.

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