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David Acheson joins Leavitt Partners to advise firms on food safety and trade issues

by Joan Murphy | September 01, 2009
WASHINGTON -- One of the more visible food safety officials at the U.S. Food & Drug Administration - former Associate Commissioner for Foods David Acheson - started a new venture in August advising companies on food safety and trade issues at the consulting firm Leavitt Partners.

With experience in infectious diseases and seven years as a food safety regulator, Dr. Acheson was asked by former Health & Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt to join a new consulting firm that focuses on trade, health and environmental issues.

As managing director of Food & Import Safety Practice, Dr. Acheson said that the new firm can help industry "best address issues that maximize public health and respond to a more enforcement-oriented FDA."

Companies will need to "navigate changes in the food supply," he said in an Aug. 26 interview with The Produce News. Traceability and preventative controls are two examples of federal requirements that will be changing for the produce industry, and Dr. Acheson said that he can also help with crisis communication to ensure that the media get "the whole story" during safety mishaps.

The most visible face defending FDA's food safety policies, Dr. Acheson testified numerous times on Capitol Hill, led media briefings during high- profile outbreaks and advocated for the Bush administration's Food Protection Plan. As FDA's food safety czar, Dr. Acheson defended the agency's response through the 2008 Salmonella investigation that was originally tied to tomatoes and later linked to Mexican-grown peppers.

Now outside the agency, he said that two things need to change to ensure that the tomato-pepper crisis does not happen again. First, the nation needs to fix the eroding public health infrastructure so regulators have strong confidence in the epidemiological evidence supplied by state and local agencies. Second, FDA needs to develop a program that assists industry in tracing products.

The Florida and Mexico traceback of tomatoes during the Salmonella outbreak "didn't hang together," he said, and it took three to four weeks to trace a Salmonella strain to peppers grown on a Mexican farm. While that was an example of a "100 percent successful traceback to a farm in another country," he said it took four weeks and fueled concerns that the agency was not in control of the situation.

Dr. Acheson said that he is concerned that the new food safety legislation that passed the House of Representatives in July may strain the agency's resources.

Even with companies paying $500 facility registration fees, FDA will need billions of dollars each year to inspect all FDA-registered facilities within four years. The fees would collect $200,000 a year, leaving congressional appropriators to find the rest of the money to make the program work.

"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see it's not going to fly," he said. FDA also will need to staff an army of regulation writers to develop guidelines on hazard assessments, preventative controls, performance standards, and food-safety plans, he said. This comes as FDA is busy staffing a new center charged with regulating tobacco, he added.

"There will be a lot of anxiety if the House-passed bill" becomes law, said Dr. Acheson.

Before joining FDA as chief medical officer at FDA's Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition, Dr. Acheson was director of the Food Safety & Security Staff at CFSAN. He was appointed by then-FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach to a new position as food safety czar, and during 2007, also served as director of the CFSAN before Stephen Sundlof took the helm in 2008.