A healthier FDA

The underfunded public agency is a stock character in today's budget melodramas. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration may well be its archetype. The FDA oversees 80% of the food we eat but gets 24% of federal food-safety funding. Its staff is too small to examine even 1% of imported food, and it inspects a fraction of foreign drug makers. Its budget was cut while food and drug imports rose dramatically.

The sad, old plot reached a tragic climax over the last couple of years with the discovery of contaminated pet food and seafood imported from China; the deaths of 81 people from tainted heparin, a blood-thinning drug that had been made in that country; and the sickening of hundreds by E. coli in domestic lettuce and spinach. Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have been eager to give the agency a big funding increase this year, but the agency's commissioner, Andrew C. von Eschenbach, wouldn't take it.

His reticence was understandable. President Bush, while calling for more FDA personnel based overseas, has been unwilling to attach increased funding for new operations, and Von Eschenbach would have been going against his boss to ask for a bigger budget, even when members of Congress verbally battered him for an answer on how much he needed. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) ended the standoff with a letter to Von Eschenbach asking for his "professional judgment" on how much money the FDA could use effectively to improve food and drug safety. Asking for a bigger appropriation was one thing; providing an expert opinion was another. The answer: $275 million to hire more inspectors, open foreign offices and upgrade technology.

The number is realistic. Though short of what Government Accountability Office reports have suggested for the agency, this increase of about 15% is what the FDA can realistically use in a single year. A big, new budget also requires a ramp-up in hiring and operations that cannot be done overnight. But the FDA also will need new powers to issue recalls and set standards for overseas food and drug companies that sell to the United States.

The funding would be a good start. The FDA commissioner's figure was quickly written into legislation and passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee. It deserves equally swift approval by Congress and the president to ensure that the government can protect the integrity of our medicines and the safety of our daily bread.

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