FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said her agency has only four inspectors in Savannah and that "we're hoping to double that in the very near term."
She spoke to reporters at the dockside after touring the nation's fourth busiest container port. It handled 2.9 million containers of imports and exports last year.
Joining Hamburg for her port tour was U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, a Savannah Republican who not only represents the port but also sits on the House subcommittee that oversees the FDA's budget.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents handle most cargo inspections at Savannah and other American seaports. However, the FDA has its own inspectors to ensure the safety of fruits and vegetables, seafood, drugs, cosmetics, tobacco products and other goods entering or leaving the U.S. aboard cargo ships.
Hamburg cited the Savannah port's explosive growth as a major reason for seeking more inspectors and technology that allows them to work more efficiently. The volume of cargo handled through Savannah has nearly tripled in the last decade. And the Georgia Ports Authority is seeking $600 million to deepen parts of the Savannah River to accommodate supersized container ships as early as 2016.
"The role of this port is going to be growing over time so we also are trying to increase our engagement," Hamburg said.
Kingston said he wants to make sure cargo is "inspected to the adequate level," but the congressman stopped short of endorsing the FDA chief's request for more inspectors.
"Maybe you need to double the inspectors. Maybe you need more, maybe you need less," Kingston said. "What we want to make sure of is that you have the safety mission accomplished and at the same time that's balanced with our ability to grow the port."