The US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is beginning a multi-year hiring scheme that could ease strain on its ability to react in times of crisis, though the initiative does not likely go far enough for detractors both within and outside the agency who say it is dangerously under funded.
FDA recently announced that in the 2008 fiscal year it is looking to fill more than 600 new positions as well as backfill over 700 others as part of the 2007 FDA Amendments Act, the Food Protection Plan and the Import Safety Action Plan.
Though this represents nearly triple the amount hired between 2005 and 2007, the fact the agency's mandate is vast and that it is not guaranteed to actually find such specialized staff mean the initiative may not quickly translate into more effective surveillance for consumer goods.
FDA announced it is looking to hire hundreds of staff with science and medical backgrounds to monitor the safety and effectiveness of a number of categories of products of which food is only one small part. These categories include human and veterinary drugs, biological products, medical devices, food, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation.
In November 2007, the government announced wide sweeping plans to improve the safety of the US food supply, with measures including more stringent inspections, stronger penalties and mandatory recalls. The Food Protection Plan and the Import Safety Action Plan emerged as part of this.
These two plans aim to prevent contamination in the domestic food chain and to ensure the safety of imported food.
Under the Food Protection Plan, FDA will also be able to issue additional preventive controls for high-risk foods, accredit third parties for voluntary food inspections, increase access to food records during emergencies, and issue a mandatory recall if voluntary recalls are not effective.
The Import Safety Action Plan comprises short- and long-term recommendations to enhance the safety of the increasing volume of imports entering the US.
Among the measures outlined by the plan is the creation of a stronger certification process in exporting countries, a greater US presence overseas, and stronger penalties for those responsible for selling unsafe products.
However, at the heart of the country's food safety issue lies the problem of funding.
FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach addressed this problem earlier this year during a speech given to the National Press Club.
"It is no secret in Washington that as the FDA's responsibilities have grown, the resources devoted to them have not kept pace," said Eschenbach.
"Strengthening the FDA for this new century will require an investment, providing our agency with a budget and authorities that are commensurate with the scale and scope of our mission."
To ensure a quick turn around in the current hiring process, the US government has made sure there is little red tape procedure to go through. FDA even said that qualified candidates could be on the job in as little as three weeks.
This is because the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has granted direct-hire authority to FDA. OPM has jurisdiction to give federal agencies direct-hire authority in cases where a severe shortage of candidates exists.
FDA said the jobs it is looking to fill are for medical officers, consumer safety officers, chemists, nurse consultants, biologists, microbiologists, health/regulatory/general health scientists, mathematical statisticians, epidemiologists, pharmacologists, pharmacists and veterinary medical officers.
Many of these positions will be located in the Washington D.C. area, some throughout the rest of the US, and there are also a few newly created positions abroad.