Senate Committee Challenges FDA Commissioner on FY 2014 Budget

Dr. Margaret Hamburg, Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), faced questioning on many topics when she testified before the Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, the FDA and Related Agencies, a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee on April 18, 2013. In her initial testimony, Dr. Hamburg noted that 20 cents of every dollar American consumers spend goes for products regulated by the FDA and referred to the FDA as “a true bargain” and “a smart investment” for taxpayers.

Dr. Hamburg described the agency’s increased responsibilities that have resulted from the FDA Safety and Innovation Act (P.L. 112-144), the Food Safety Modernization Act (P.L. 111-353), and other legislation. She also said that the agency had to address the increasing proportion of the nation’s supply of food and drugs that are imported.

Asked about the effects of the sequester on the agency’s ability to accomplish its mission, Dr. Hamburg said that it had lost $83 million in user fees and $126 million in budget authority. No furloughs had been necessary because the FDA had not filled all the positions it had been authorized. She stressed the importance of getting back the user fees because they had been negotiated with the industry with the understanding that they would fund FDA operations.

The members of the committee questioned Dr. Hamburg on several topics of interest to the public. Senator Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) asked when the FDA will issue a final rule implementing the requirement that menus in restaurants and certain other sales venue include nutritional information. When Dr. Hamburg responded that she hoped to get the rule out by the end of the year, Blunt pressed her to specify whether she meant the fiscal year or the calendar year. Senator Jon Tester (R-Mont.) asked how the FDA planned to resolve the uncertainty and, possibly, unfairness caused by the proposal to require labeling from farmers who sell to consumers on their own property, but not from farmers who sell at farmers’ markets. Hamburg said that the agency was still considering all the comments it received.

Other members of the subcommittee asked when or whether the FDA would respond to a citizens’ petition submitted in October 2011 asking that the FDA publish regulations requiring the labeling of genetically modified (GM) food. A discussion followed about the scientific evidence regarding the safety of GM foods. Hamburg stated that the FDA did not proactively seek to address the issue. When asked whether the scientific evidence showed that the GM foods were safe, she responded that the agency had no reason to believe that there was a serious threat to health. Dr. Hamburg reaffirmed her support for voluntary labeling. Senator Tester responded that if the industry planned to label its GM foods, it would have happened by now.