|FDA Labs Appear Safe From Closure|
Published: Friday, 24 August 2007 22:46
Federal officials have temporarily shelved plans to shutter seven of the nation's 13 food and drug safety laboratories, including one in Alameda, in a move seen as bowing to congressional and public pressure.
"FDA is temporarily suspending the plan to reorganize our field operations, including the lab closures," said Robert Ali, a Food and Drug Administration spokesman.
Officials from the National Treasury Employees Union, the group representing thousands of FDA employees, received the message with concealed jubilation. The union has spent several years fighting the plan, which sought to consolidate the labs.
Colleen Kelley, president of NTEU, called the move "the right decision for the American people ... I hope the FDA will use the lessons learned in this episode to consider its field structure in the context of how best to serve the public interest ... it is imperative that the agency now invest resources in all its laboratories to make them as efficient and effective as possible."
Public and congressional pressure against the plan has ratcheted up with each successive food-borne illness scare, and has erupted in the wake of revelations of toxic material entering the nation's food supply through imported goods.
Local officials from around the nation have weighed in on the issue opposing the proposal, including Mayor Beverly Johnson who sent a letter questioning why federal officials were seeking to close a facility that FDA officials had recently praised for its response to a recent E. coli outbreak traced to Salinas Valley spinach.
According to reports published last week, Margaret Glavin, the FDA's assistant commissioner for regulatory affairs wrote in a memo to staff: "To assure our success and allow additional time to gather input, I am canceling plans for the rollout of all changes to our organizational structure."
FDA spokesman Ali declined to confirm, deny or elaborate on the memo.
Ali wrote in a statement that the agency is pausing to "re-evaluate [the] best way to proceed, in context of looking at priorities, investment needs, business processes to support new food safety strategy, import changes from President's Import Working Group, and THEN figure out what organizational changes are needed to support all this," he said.
Approximately 250 jobs were at risk under the consolidation plan, including at least 30 in Alameda. The local lab employs about 30 microbiologists according to the FDA. Officials with the agency maintain that employees displaced by closure would be reassigned to other labs. Critics accused the FDA of seeking to outsource the positions to private labs and said employees reassigned would likely leave the agency.