WASHINGTON – A Food and Drug Administration plan to close half its laboratories is an assault on food safety that probably would expose more Americans to harm from unsafe food, lawmakers charged Tuesday.
The FDA's ability to police the nation's food supply has come under withering criticism from Congress amid a string of high-profile cases of foodborne illness, including E. coli-tainted spinach and salmonella-contaminated snack foods. The FDA, meanwhile, says it's streamlining its operations, including through a plan to consolidate the labs where it tests foods.
Members of Congress called that plan misguided and questioned whether it would save money, as FDA has claimed. Worse, they said, is the risk it would harm food safety.
"FDA's ill-conceived decision to close seven of its 13 laboratories likely would expose American consumers to even more danger from unsafe foods, particularly imports," said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., at the onset of a hearing of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce subcommittee on the FDA and food safety.
Imports from China, in particular, recently have come under scrutiny. Chinese-made ingredients have been linked to deadly pet food ingredients mixed with industrial chemicals and snack food seasonings contaminated by salmonella.
"We know that we are vulnerable to harm from abroad where rules and regulations governing food production often are more lax than they are at home," said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., in raising the prospect of terrorists tampering with imports entering the U.S. food supply.
FDA officials, including commissioner Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach, were expected to testify later Tuesday.
An ongoing Energy and Commerce Committee investigation found the FDA has little ability to police imports. In San Francisco, for example, the FDA's staff can only conduct a cursory review of imports, generally dedicating just 30 seconds to each shipment as it flashes by on a computer screen, according to investigators.
Even when products are flagged by the FDA, importers have learned to game the system, investigators said. For example, the FDA relies on results obtained from private labs before clearing and releasing suspect imports, including Chinese farmed seafood. But those labs produce results driven by financial rather than scientific concerns, investigators told the subcommittee.
Investigative counsel Kevin Barstow said he was told by an unnamed FDA deputy lab director that "none of the test results he's seen are completely accurate."
"The words he used were 'not good' and 'spooky,"' Barstow told the subcommittee.
Importers also can reduce the level of scrutiny by having their products test negative five consecutive times, according to a summary of the investigators' findings. Since some large fish, including tuna, can be flagged for high mercury levels, importers will arrange to have five lots of smaller fish — generally younger and with comparatively less mercury — tested to obtain an all-clear from the FDA, according to the findings. Once the monitoring decreases, the importers can then resume bringing in larger fish that otherwise might not pass muster.
Some potentially problematic seafood imports are being steered to enter the country in Las Vegas to avoid the scrutiny they might receive in San Francisco and other West Coast seaports, according to House investigators.
The problems go beyond food. In Puerto Rico, investigators learned importers were getting around the FDA's blocking of imports of Chinese-made toothpaste made with an antifreeze ingredient by co-packaging them with toothbrushes. Once labeled in import records simply as "toothbrushes," the packages were able to slip past the FDA until the agency caught on, senior investigator David Nelson said. Examples of the tainted toothpaste included a Crest knockoff called "Crust," Nelson said.