The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) paid its staff more than $35 million in “incentive pay” during FY2007, a 29% increase over the previous financial year and the biggest pay-out since the cash bonus scheme was expanded in 2004 to encourage key employees not to defect to the far better-paid private sector.

A number of agency staffers received over $50,000 in incentive pay and 17 were paid more than $200,000 in total during the year, according to documents sent by the agency to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which is currently investigating compensation practices at the agency. The size of the payments were described as “outrageous,” given the agency’s recent well-documented problems, by Democrat Representative Bart Stupak, chairman of the Committee’s oversight and investigations subcommittee.

In February, Rep Stupak had called for the resignation of FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach, in the wake of the US deaths which had resulted from contaminated batches of Baxter’s blood-thinner hepartin entering the national supply, and suggestions that faulty data had been used in the approval of Sanofi-aventis’s antibiotic Ketek (telithromycin). The Congressman said at the time that there was “a total lack of leadership” at the agency.

The $8 million which went on bonuses for senior staff last year would have been better spent on hiring more inspectors or improving the agency’s information technology (IT) systems, measures which the agency itself has said are needed, added Rep Stupak.

Bonuses to top staff quadrupled from 2002 to 2005, when they totaled $13.6 million – compared to $7.2 million in 2004 - and were paid when the agency was facing scandals such as the withdrawal of Merck & Co’s COX-2 inhibitor Vioxx (rofecoxib). Another criticism is that the bonuses paid to the inspectors, doctors and scientists - which FDA acknowledges it needs more of - have been much lower; these staff can easily double their FDA salaries in the commercial sector.

In contrast, Margaret O’Keefe Glavin, who is expected to retire this summer after 40 years at the FDA – since 2005 serving as chief of regulatory affairs – is reported to have received cash bonuses in excess of $178,000 during a period of four and a half years, on top of her annual salary of around $159,000.