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Obama directs focus on food safety, names FDA leadership

by Joan Murphy | March 18, 2009
WASHINGTON -- When President Obama spends a Saturday radio address talking about food safety, can federal legislation be far behind?

Legislation to modernize the U.S. Food & Drug Administration's food-safety authority got a huge boost March 14 when President Obama took the opportunity during his Saturday radio address to name the new FDA commissioner, criticize the current food-safety system and announce a new interagency working group to look at ways to improve the federal system.

The Obama administration tapped Margaret Hamburg, a former New York City health commissioner, as FDA commissioner, and Joshua Sharfstein, Baltimore's health commissioner, as deputy commissioner, to head the embattled agency already under close scrutiny by Congress.

Dr. Hamburg, an AIDS and bioterrorism expert, has worked for the National Institutes of Health and as a Clinton appointee for the Department of Health & Human Services. Before becoming Baltimore health commissioner, Dr. Sharfstein worked for Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), who has become chairman of the powerful House Energy & Commerce Committee, with jurisdiction over rewriting FDA's food and drug programs.

FDA watchdogs in Congress and consumer groups praised President Obama's choice to head FDA.

"In just the past year, the deaths and illnesses we have seen linked to contaminated food and drugs are a direct result of the FDA not doing its job," Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI), who heads a key House subcommittee charged with overseeing FDA's performance, said in a statement. "It's no longer a matter of if the FDA will be reformed, but rather a matter of when and how."

An under-funded FDA that inspects 7,000 of some 150,000 food-processing plants each year is a "hazard to public health," President Obama said during the March 14 radio address. He pointed to "the troubling trend" of increasing outbreaks from contaminated produce and other foods, and that the system of inspection and enforcement is "spread out so widely among so many people that it's difficult for different parts of our government to share information, work together and solve problems."

He announced the creation of a working group that will "bring together Cabinet secretaries and senior officials to advise me on how we can upgrade our food-safety laws for the 21st century; foster coordination throughout government; and ensure that we are not just designing laws that will keep the American people safe, but enforcing them."

"We've always known this is an era of food-safety legislation and regulation," said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs for the Produce Marketing Association.

Ms. Means said that one area in need of improvement is communication between the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and the FDA during outbreaks. Many people blamed the FDA for identifying tomatoes in last year's Salmonella outbreak, but it was CDC that passed that information onto FDA, she explained.

Why does the produce industry need a stronger FDA? The agency's credibility has suffered under the weight of the latest food-safety mishaps -- along with the produce industry and consumer confidence.

One solution that PMA is advocating is for government agencies to take better advantage of industry expertise when it comes to distribution patterns and commodity harvesting issues. Ms. Means and Bob Whitaker, chief science officer at PMA, walked the halls of Congress earlier this month, urging the government to let the produce industry supply critical support to FDA, which would speed outbreak investigations and prevent another summer-long probe that crippled the tomato industry.