Mar 16, 2009 (CIDRAP News) – President Barack Obama has promised that his new commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Dr. Margaret Hamburg, and a new cabinet-level panel will revitalize the federal government's food safety efforts in the wake of a troubling string of foodborne disease outbreaks.
Confirming reports that leaked out several days ago, Obama on Mar 14 announced the appointment of Hamburg, a biodefense expert and former New York City health commissioner, as FDA commissioner. The announcement has drawn praise from an array of consumer and public health advocacy groups.
Obama also announced the creation of a new Food Safety Working Group to advise him on ways to improve food safety laws and to promote cooperation among the multiple government agencies that oversee food safety. The group will be led by the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the secretary of the Department of Agriculture (USDA).
In his weekly radio address Mar 14, the president said the nation is battling nearly 350 foodborne disease outbreaks a year, compared with 100 a year in the early 1990s. He blamed outdated laws, the diffusion of regulatory responsibilities across many government agencies, and underfunding that leaves the FDA unable to inspect more than 5% of food processing plants and warehouses each year.
"That is a hazard to public health," Obama said. "It is unacceptable. And it will change under the leadership of Margaret Hamburg, whom I am appointing today as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration."
Hamburg comes to the FDA from the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an institute focusing on defenses against nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, where she has been vice president of biological programs since 2001. She previously served as assistant secretary for policy and evaluation in President Bill Clinton's HHS, which followed her stint as New York City health commissioner from 1991 to 1997.
During her service in New York, Hamburg sent health workers to tuberculosis patients' homes to help manage their drug regimens, which reduced TB rates there by 45% from 1992 to 1997, according to a biography on a National Institutes of Health (NIH) Web site. The approach became a model for health departments around the world.
Hamburg also instituted needle-exchange programs to combat HIV infection and set up the nation's first public-health bioterrorism defense program during her work in New York, according to the NIH.
Obama also announced the appointment of Dr. Joshua Sharfstein as principal deputy commissioner at the FDA. "As Baltimore's health commissioner, Dr. Sharfstein has been recognized as a national leader for his efforts to protect children from unsafe over-the-counter cough and cold medications," Obama said. "And he's designed an award-winning program to ensure that Americans with disabilities had access to prescription drugs."
In announcing the Food Safety Working Group, Obama gave few details. He said it would "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. And I expect this group to report back to me as soon as possible."
The president also noted the USDA's implementation on Mar 14 of a complete ban on the use of disabled cattle for food. The new rule, which closes a loophole that allowed some downer cattle to be slaughtered for food, was proposed last August.
"We are also strengthening our food safety system and modernizing our labs with a billion dollar investment, a portion of which will go toward significantly increasing the number of food inspectors, helping ensure that the FDA has the staff and support they need to protect the food we eat," Obama said.
Several public health and consumer groups welcomed the choice of Hamburg to lead the FDA, whose reputation has been tarnished by the nationwide Salmonella outbreak linked to peanut products, among other recent problems.
"Dr. Hamburg is well-respected, smart, tough and effective and knows the full spectrum of issues related to public health," said Georges C. Benjamin, MD, executive director of the American Public Health Association, in a statement.
"Her appointment signals a commitment to protecting consumer health, and we are confident that under her leadership there will be a concerted effort to support scientific independence and ensure that politics will not influence agency decisions," he added.
Hamburg's appointment was also praised by Lowell Weicker Jr., former Connecticut senator and a board member at the Trust for America's Health (TFAH), a nonprofit, nonpartisan public health advocacy group. Hamburg also has served on the group's board for the past 5-1/2 years.
Weicker said Obama's choice sends "a strong signal that the public's health and safety will be the top priorities of the nation's largest regulatory agency." He called Hamburg "a proven manager, having turned around an ailing and under-resourced health department in New York City, where she restored both morale among workers and the agency's credibility among its citizens."
The nutrition watchdog group Center for Science in the Public (CSPI) Interest praised both Hamburg and Sharfstein. "While most past commissioners have focused primarily on the drug side of FDA, Drs. Hamburg and Sharfstein are both well aware the FDA also regulates foods. They will have additional resources and, I hope, new statutory authorities to improve on," CSPI Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson said in a statement.
Hamburg and Sharfstein also were hailed by Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, and the Consumer Federation of America, an association of 300 consumer groups. "Their resumes are extremely impressive and both are familiar with the FDA's failure to protect the public from foodborne illness," the federation said.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who chairs the FDA Appropriations Subcommittee in the House, called Hamburg "the right choice at this critical time in food safety."
Mar 14 APHA statement
Mar 14 statement by Weicker of TFAH
Mar 14 CSPI statement
Mar 11 Consumer Union statement