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FDA Lab Closure Plan Delayed

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The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has tabled plans to close over half of its testing laboratories, the agency announced last week. The FDA had wanted to close the facilities as part of a reorganization plan meant to increase efficiency. The FDA is responsible for policing over 80-percent of the US food supply, and the labs handle the testing of food and other products.

The original FDA plan called for closing seven out of 13 labs around the country. The FDA claimed that such a move would allow operations to become more streamlined. Many in congress, however, did not agree. In July, the House and Senate appropriations committees voted to block funding for the plan. Congressional criticism came after a series of food poisoning scandals involving everything from snack foods to peanut butter highlighted weaknesses in the nation’s food safety system. In July, several people became ill with botulism poisoning after they had eaten hot dog chili sauces produced by the Castleberry’s Food Company in Georgia. And in February, more than 600 people contracted Salmonella from contaminated Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter made by ConAgra Foods. In the case of the peanut butter Salmonella, an April 2007 article published by the Washington Post included documents proving that the FDA and ConAgra knew of contamination problems at the peanut butter factory in 2004. The FDA took few corrective measures, assuming that ConAgra would address the situation itself. Unfortunately, whatever the company did was not enough to prevent the Salmonella outbreak.

The FDA’s record of policing imported foods has also come under fire in recent months. During a congressional hearing in July, investigators testified that FDA personnel charged with reviewing imports at US ports were completely overwhelmed. It was reported that most reviewers were each responsible for tracking 600 food shipments and 300 medical device shipments each day. Reviewers at FDA labs fared no better. In the San Francisco testing lab, an FDA staffer has only 30 seconds to review each shipment of imports as they flashed by on a computer screen, investigators told congress. Such revelations caused many members of the committee to question the FDA’s plans to close labs. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich) said that such closures “likely would expose American consumers to even more danger from unsafe foods.”

On Friday, FDA Associate Commissioner for Regulatory Affairs announced that plans for the lab closures had been put on hold. But the agency said that the announcement did not mean that the lab closures had been cancelled. Rather, the FDA said that it was “evaluating how to proceed with the reorganization based on recommendations” from a presidential panel on import safety. That panel is expected to release its findings on September 17.

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