Lawmakers also criticized the Food and Drug Administration's plan to close half of its laboratories. They called that idea misguided and questioned whether it would save money and enhance the agency's ability to target unsafe food, as FDA commissioner Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach said it would.
The agency says consolidating will be more efficient but critics on Capitol Hill worry it will cause a huge brain drain, at the very worst time, reports CBS News correspondent Nancy Cordes.
"FDA's ill-conceived decision to close seven of its 13 laboratories likely would expose American consumers to even more danger from unsafe foods, particularly imports," said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., at a hearing of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce subcommittee on the FDA and food safety.
The FDA's ability to police the nation's food supply has come under withering criticism from Congress and others amid a string of high-profile cases of foodborne illness, including E. coli-tainted spinach and salmonella-contaminated peanut butter and snack foods, and contaminated and imports from China.
An Energy and Commerce Committee investigation found the FDA now has little ability to police imports. In San Francisco, for example, the FDA's staff can conduct only a cursory review of imports, generally dedicating just 30 seconds to each shipment as it flashes by on a computer screen, according to investigators.
Investigators says the FDA port reviewers they observed were totally overwhelmed, each tracking 600 food shipments and 300 medical device shipments a day, reports Cordes.
Even when products are flagged by the FDA, importers have learned to game the system, investigators said. For example, the FDA relies on results obtained from private labs before clearing and releasing suspect imports, including Chinese farmed seafood. But those labs produce results driven by financial rather than scientific concerns, investigators told the subcommittee.
Investigative counsel Kevin Barstow said he was told by an unnamed FDA deputy lab director that "none of the test results he's seen are completely accurate."
"The words he used were 'not good' and 'spooky,"' Barstow told the subcommittee.
Importers also can reduce the level of scrutiny by having their products test negative five consecutive times, according to a summary of the investigators' findings. Since some large fish, including tuna, can be flagged for high mercury levels, importers will arrange to have five lots of smaller fish — generally younger and with comparatively less mercury — tested to obtain an all-clear from the FDA, according to the findings. Once the monitoring decreases, the importers can then resume bringing in larger fish that otherwise might not pass muster.
"You're saying the importers know how to maneuver around the FDA?" asked Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa.
"Yes," committee senior investigator David Nelson said.
Some potentially problematic seafood imports are being steered to enter the country in Las Vegas to avoid the scrutiny they might receive in San Francisco and other West Coast seaports, according to Nelson and other investigators.
The problems go beyond food. In Puerto Rico, investigators learned importers were getting around the FDA's blocking of imports of Chinese-made toothpaste made with an antifreeze ingredient by co-packaging them with toothbrushes. Once labeled in import records simply as "toothbrushes," the packages were able to slip past the FDA until the agency caught on, Nelson said. Examples of the tainted toothpaste included a Crest knockoff called "Crust," he added.
Another tactic includes shipping wheat gluten, the ingredient at the heart of the pet food contamination, in bags marked with Dutch, reports Cordes.
The decision to close and consolidate labs is likely to negatively impact safety, said B. Belinda Collins, the FDA's Denver district director. Furthermore, the reorganization would likely force many employees to retire or leave, said Carol Heppe, who faces the loss of her job as the FDA's Cincinnati district director.
"This will result in a mass loss of institutional knowledge and expertise at a time when the agency is trying to be proactive in our operations to prevent more emergencies," Heppe added.
Several of the most recent and high-profile food scares have involved imports from China, including deadly pet food ingredients spiked with industrial chemicals, farmed fish laced with antibiotics and snack food seasoning contaminated by salmonella.
"We know that we are vulnerable to harm from abroad where rules and regulations governing food production often are more lax than they are at home," said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., in raising the prospect of terrorists tampering with imports entering the U.S. food supply.
But von Eschenbach said the FDA lab reorganization would "significantly enhance our capability to assess and rank risks in order to improve the targeting of our inspection, enforcement and analytical resources."