Washington, DC — Shrugging off congressional objections, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will immediately move to close more than half of its laboratories across the country, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The closures will be completed during the next few months, before the new Congress can act to block the shutdowns through the appropriations bill for the next fiscal year.
According to briefings of agency staff, FDA’s current network of 13 laboratories will be reduced to six as a result of closing facilities in Denver, Detroit, Philadelphia, Kansas City, San Francisco, Winchester (Massachusetts) and San Juan (Puerto Rico).
These laboratories are often the first line of defense in detecting and combating bio-terrorist attacks on our food supplies. In addition, they trace tampering with food and medicines and respond to public health threats, such as E. coli outbreaks, and support agency compliance inspections and enforcement actions.
Top FDA officials have postponed any formal notification of affected staff until after they finish briefing members of Congress. Already, congressional committee chairs, such as Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) have raised concerns about FDA lab closure plans revealed last December by PEER.
In addition, FDA has informed agency staff that no money has been set aside for buy-outs of employees who lose their positions or relocation costs for specialists whose jobs have been moved to one of the six remaining labs. As a consequence, employees who lose positions may be removed from federal service or face high out-of-pocket expenses to uproot their families in pursuit of jobs opened in other locations.
“FDA has yet to explain why slashing its network of laboratories will make it more capable of protecting the American people,” stated of PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that a previous review by the Government Accountability Office failed to confirm any fiscal savings from a similar laboratory consolidation plan a decade ago. “FDA claims it wants to move into the 21st century but seems determined to leave its own employees behind.”
Ironically, both, President Bush and Congress have been proposing more funds to increase FDA laboratory capacity in responding to bio-terrorist attacks. Due to the collapse of the FY 07 budget process, however, none of those funds were actually delivered to FDA.
FDA specialists have argued that eliminating laboratories will slow agency response time to outbreaks or attacks, as samples may have to be transported long distances. In addition, closing laboratories located near ports or large food distribution centers may reduce the agency’s ability to uncover contamination or other hazards before the effects ripple deeply through the country’s food chain.