updated 8/1/2007 5:36:45 PM ET 2007-08-01T21:36:45

The Food and Drug Administration’s commissioner has suspended plans to close more than half the agency’s field laboratories.

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Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach is awaiting recommendations from a presidential panel about how to better guarantee the safety of imported food and other products.

He said Wednesday he wanted to make sure the FDA was “doing the right thing and doing it in the right way” before proceeding.

President Bush established the Import Safety Working Group on July 18 and asked for recommendations in 60 days.

“Once we have the benefit of that information, we can come back again to the more fundamental question of how do we create a field operation that is adapted to and equipped to manage the converging challenges and converging complexities of our ability to ensure the quality of the products that FDA regulates,” von Eschenbach said.

The panel’s creation came on the heels of a spate of recalls of imported food and consumer products, many of them Chinese and regulated by the FDA.

Against that backdrop, the FDA has said it wants to consolidate its lab network to modernize its food safety efforts. Lawmakers, some lab employees and the union that represents much of the FDA work force believe that idea would make matters worse.

In a letter sent von Eschenbach on Tuesday, Democratic Reps. John Dingell and Bart Stupak of Michigan asked if the purpose of the lab closures was to privatize the testing of imported foods. They cited a pilot program to assess doing just that.

Von Eschenbach denied that the closures were part of an outsourcing plan. Later, however, he said the agency would consider certifying or credentialing private labs to do some testing work. He further suggested the FDA could collaborate more with Customs and Border Protection and the states in policing imports.

Von Eschenbach said Congress’ failure to agree on FDA legislation before the summer recess would not lead to layoffs at the agency as long as the measure made it to Bush before late September.

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