The US Food and Drug Administration has come under fire amid claims that the agency is not doing enough in terms of inspecting foreign facilities.

At the US House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee hearing saw the agency accused of not spending enough on inspections of drug manufacturers outside the USA to ensure the safety of medicine imports. The accusations came after a US Government Accountability Office estimate indicates that it would cost at least $15 million to inspect China's 714 drug making plants every two years, and it would take $67 million a year to conduct inspections of the near 3,300 plants around the world that ship drugs into the USA.

The FDA has only budgeted $11 million for 2008 and $13 million for 2009 for such inspections. The agency’s commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach told the subcommittee that more frequent inspections are indeed needed, and the inspection of 500 foreign facilities would cost around $20 million a year.

However Mr von Eschenbach stated that "in addition to addressing the need to increase our inspections, we also need to overhaul the entire system”. He added that the problem is “much more complex, and the solution needs to be much more comprehensive than simply inspecting a facility”.

The issue of safety in plants abroad is under the spotlight given the 81 deaths since January 2007 that have been linked to contaminated versions of the blood-thinner heparin from China. The FDA has said it did not inspect a plant in China that made the main ingredient in Baxter International's heparin product, which was found to be contaminated after it confused records on that facility and another with a similar name. Baxter and its supplier say the contaminant must have been added earlier in the supply chain, before the products reached their factories but these theory is being disputed by Chinese and US officials.

Mr von Eschenbach’s comments cut little ice with John Dingell, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He asked the Commissioner repeatedly how much the agency would cost to do more inspections and reacted sharply when no specific answer was forthcoming.

Rep Dingell told Mr von Eschenbach said that “you cannot do your job, you are not doing your job. You simply are absolutely incapable of addressing your responsibilities”.