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The FDA Gets Its Moment in the Sun, Funding-Wise

The Food and Drug Administration’s friends on Capitol Hill this week plan to take a big step toward funding the kind of tough, watchdog agency they’ve envisioned for years.

The House is expected to pass an appropriations bill that would hike spending for the FDA by a healthy 11 percent for fiscal 2010. And supporters say this $300 million infusion — to a total of $2.4 billion — comes just in time.

Congress has given the agency the authority to regulate tobacco, a major new endeavor. But Congressional backers say more dollars are desperately needed for other functions, too, such as more inspectors to prevent the spread of food-borne illnesses and increased oversight of foreign and domestic medical device manufacturers.

“This substantial investment in FDA’s priority needs will help to reform and significantly improve the agency that ensures food and medical product safety,— said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development and the Food and Drug Administration.

For years, lawmakers, mainly Democrats, have sought to expand the FDA’s oversight role. Still, the agency has perennially been short on both dollars and personnel.

Democrats blame George W. Bush’s administration for neglecting the agency and say budget cuts led to a decline in the FDA’s oversight role. Specifically, critics say funding cuts led to a 47 percent reduction in FDA inspectors and a 75 percent drop in safety testing between 2003 and 2006.

But with a Democrat in the White House and solid Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, a funding reversal seems likely. Also, recent concerns about food-borne illnesses and separate House legislation to expand the agency’s food safety role could help propel the measure to easy passage.

DeLauro has carefully touted the proposed spending as a “turning point— for food and drug safety rather than simply more dollars for the agency. “The American people must be able to depend on the system and the people in charge of protecting them,— she has said.

Rep. Jack Kingston (Ga.), DeLauro’s GOP counterpart on the subcommittee, concedes the funding is likely to sail through, but he believes extra spending is unnecessary. “I don’t know if the budget increases are merited— because of remaining questions about how effectively the agency uses these funds, Kingston said.

Kingston noted that most food safety work is already done by the private sector, not the FDA. “My thinking as a conservative is that they don’t do much on food safety,— he said. “If we depended on FDA for food safety, we’d have a lot of sick people out there.—

Republicans have yet to unveil any possible amendments to the legislation. “We have 178 votes,— a senior GOP aide responded when asked if Republicans could slow down the bill.

But some conservatives, including Jeff Stier, associate director of the American Council on Science and Health, agreed that there is a need for more FDA funding. There is “pretty wide consensus that FDA needs more money for food safety legislation,— he said.

Coalitions such as the Alliance for a Stronger FDA are pleased with the increase but remain concerned that it might not be enough to support expanded agency missions. For example, the pending House food safety bill would give the FDA broad new authorities to inspect food production facilities, more easily make recalls, and levy fines against food producers

Steven Grossman, the alliance’s deputy executive director, said he’s concerned that the FDA “will be given new responsibilities but no money.— He said that “puts at risk the monies that have been appropriated to strengthen the agency and help it do a better job with its existing responsibilities.—

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