An FDA employee reviews a new drug application.
An FDA employee reviews a new drug application. - 
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KAI RYSSDAL: It's not cheap to hang onto good employees no matter where you work. But the federal government faces special circumstances. Some employees could make buckets more money doing similar work in the private sector. In the massive bureaucracy of the federal government the Food and Drug Administration is home to some of the biggest employee retention bonuses. The same agency that can only afford to inspect about 1 percent of the nation's food imports. A fact that led to some grilling at a congressional hearing today. From Washington, Jeremy Hobson reports.

Jeremy Hobson: In 2005, the FDA accounted for nearly 40 percent of the more than $21 million the federal government paid in bonuses. The only other agency in the same league is the Department of Defense.So why does the FDA need such big bonuses? Here's the answer from spokesman Rob Ali.

Rob ALI: We have a large number of physicians, pharmacists, scientists, biostatisticians, Ph.D.'s and other such experts who are in high demand in the private sector.

The bonuses at the FDA tripled between 2002 and 2006. But it appeared to cost the agency more to hold onto drug experts than food safety workers. Of the $9.5 million in FDA bonuses last year, those workers only got about $265,000. Congressman Bart Stupak of Michigan is a Democrat who chaired today's hearing.

ART STUPAK: Congress did not intend $10 million for food safety programs to then be used and turn around to be used for $9.5 million in bonuses for drug approval.

Stupak says the bonus bonanza is part of a larger issue of ineptitude on the part of the FDA. The agency's ability to keep food safe has come under scrutiny in recent months following a flurry of problems. Chris Waldrop is director of the Food Policy Institute at Consumer Federation of America.

Chris WALDROP: Having a story like this come out doesn't look good on FDA. It's an agency that's broken, that doesn't have the money it needs to be able to do its job. And the agency is having to just put out fires.

Waldrop adds that the FDA still needs more money and Congress should give it to them.

In Washington, I'm Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace.

Follow Jeremy Hobson at @jeremyhobson