The moves come at a time when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is facing criticism from all sides amid a string of high profile cases of foodborne outbreaks, including salmonella in peanut butter and E. coli in spinach. A series of scares involving imports that mainly involve China have led many to question whether the FDA has the resources to protect food shipped in from abroad as well as products manufactured domestically. Chinese exports to the US have tripled in the past three years to about $288bn, while FDA budget increases have increased at a slower rate. The new panel, which is headed by health and human services secretary Michael Leavitt, includes the treasury secretary, the attorney general and the US trade representative among others. Its role is to review procedures and regulations and look at safety issues in countries that send goods to the United States. The panel is expected to deliver recommendations to the White House within sixty days. Meanwhile last week, Congress moved to block the FDA from closing more than half its field laboratories, deciding to withhold funds for the closure from the agency "pending further review." The full House is expected this week to consider the bill, which includes $1.7 billion for the FDA. The FDA says it wants to close seven of its 13 laboratories to modernize its food safety efforts. Lawmakers, some lab employees and the union that represents much of the FDA work force all believe closing labs would make matters worse. The proposed closures are seen as part of a move towards risk-based assessments of food safety, which is part of the long-awaited 2002 Import Strategic Plan. Imported fruit and vegetables will be subject to this process following an announcement last week, which will streamline the process, while continuing stringent protections, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) said. In a fact sheet published by Waxman in October 2006, the FDA's food division were said to be $135m short of funding for 2006, despite a budget increase to $439m from $407m in 2005, due to increased personnel costs and new terrorism responsibilities. The fact sheet also said that produce-related outbreaks had increased from 44 in 1998 to 86 in 2004. In the US an estimated 76 million cases of foodborne illnesses occur each year, causing about 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics for 2005.
While the Bush administration has established a cabinet-level panel to recommend food safety improvement for products shipped into the US, half of the country's import inspection laboratories are facing closure.