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FDA Commissioner Supports Direction of Food Safety Bill

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The new commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, entered the debate over how to fix the nation’s food safety system in her first appearance before Congress as commissioner recently. Dr. Hamburg told the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health that the safety legislation sponsored by several Democrats was moving in the right direction, but that the FDA would need more money to make it happen. Republicans complained about specific aspects of the measure that may go to a vote as soon as next week, highlighting the loss of the bipartisan consensus that had existed during earlier hearings.

The legislation blends provisions from bills offered by several Democrats, requiring that food manufacturers write and enact safety plans, pay an annual fee of $1,000 to the FDA, and track the distribution of all food products. In turn, the agency would be required to inspect all food facilities at least once every four years, inspecting high-risk facilities every year and a half. Dr. Hamburg noted that the registration fees will not provide enough funding to implement the legislation’s targets when evaluated realistically.

Texas Representative Joe Barton, the senior Republican on the full committee, said in March that he and the chairman of the committee, Democrat California Representative Henry Waxman, were in agreement on the subject of food safety. During the hearing, however, Mr. Barton said that the registration fees were too high and that a provision requiring food labels indicating country of origin was burdensome. He also objected to provisions that will expand the FDA’s powers, giving it the power to compel manufacturers to recall their products and subpoena manufacturing records. Mr. Waxman defended the fees as asking the industry to chip in to fund measures necessary to help avoid expensive recalls.

Pamela Bailey, president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, told the committee that the industry was concerned about the size of the fees and their effect on the FDA’s credibility. Ms. Bailey issued a statement saying that while the industry is responsible for the safety of its products, securing the safety of the food supply is a government function which should be financed with government resources.

Dr. Hamburg also addressed the agency’s new safety review of bisphenol-A, a chemical used to harden plastics that is also known as BPA. Studies have suggested that BPA may accelerate puberty, but the agency concluded during the Bush administration that it wasn’t harmful at levels found in the American market. The FDA’s science advisory panel rejected that conclusion in October, and the new review is expected by the end of the summer.

Before the hearing, activists passed out fliers protesting increased levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria due to the routine use of antibiotics in livestock. Dr. Hamburg said that the growing problem of antibiotic resistance was also a concern of hers. No decisions were made in this regard, however.