Sunday, March 15, 2009

Obama picks FDA chief, starts food safety panel

US President Barack Obama (L) speaks to reporters in the Oval Office after meeting with Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva at the White House in Washington, March 14, 2009. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Saturday chose public health and biological threat expert Dr. Margaret Hamburg to run the troubled U.S. Food and Drug Administration and announced a Cabinet-level food safety group.

Obama also outlined measures to keep diseased cows from entering the food supply and promised to increase the number of FDA food inspectors and modernize food safety labs.

He selected Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua Sharfstein to serve as Hamburg's principal deputy.

Hamburg is a former New York City health chief and she worked on policy issues in President Clinton's health department. She has experience on topics ranging from AIDS to reduction of biological threats.

"Dr. Hamburg brings to this vital position not only a reputation of integrity but a record of achievement in making Americans safer and more secure," Obama said in his weekly radio address.

If confirmed by the Senate, Hamburg will take over an agency battered by a string of often deadly food poisoning and drug safety issues, including an ongoing outbreak of salmonella in peanut products that forced the largest food recall in U.S. history.

The choice signals the FDA's priority under the Obama administration will be safety and not necessarily speeding through drug approvals.

The salmonella outbreak has made 683 people in 46 states sick, killed as many as nine and forced the recall of more than 3,000 products.

"When I heard peanut products were being contaminated earlier this year, I immediately thought of my 7-year-old daughter, Sasha, who has peanut butter sandwiches for lunch probably three times a week," Obama said.

"No parent should have to worry that their child is going to get sick from their lunch."


Obama said outdated food safety laws were in part to blame. "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 said.

The FDA "has been underfunded and understaffed in recent years, leaving the agency with the resources to inspect just 7,000 of our 150,000 food-processing plants and warehouses each year. That means roughly 95 percent of them go uninspected," he added.

Obama said he would assign his Health and Human Services secretary -- his nominee is former Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius -- and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to head a group to advise on ways to improve food safety laws.

Hamburg led an Institute of Medicine panel that reported on microbial threats in 2003. As New York City health commissioner, she battled an outbreak of drug-resistant tuberculosis fueled by the AIDS epidemic.

"There are few jobs in the federal government that are as tough or important as FDA commissioner," said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union.

Hamburg's nomination means the FDA will "have the leadership it needs at a time when it faces huge challenges," Halloran added.


Democratic Congressman Bart Stupak said he was pleased Obama went outside the agency for a new chief. He said the FDA had been "plagued by low morale, antiquated systems, inadequate funding and management more interested in protecting the companies they regulate than the American people."

Reports by outside experts have found the FDA underfunded and ill-equipped to manage its oversight of prescription drugs, medical devices, most foods and other products that account for about one-quarter of the U.S. economy.

Obama highlighted a new USDA rule to keep sick and injured cattle out of slaughterhouses to safeguard against mad cow disease.

He praised Sharfstein for "efforts to protect children from unsafe over-the-counter cough and cold medications" and a program to ensure people with disabilities have access to prescription drugs.

The pharmaceutical industry's main lobbying group praised Hamburg's selection but did not comment on Sharfstein, who did previous work for Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman, a harsh critic of drugmakers.

Hamburg "brings managerial skills that are essential for directing science-based activities," said Billy Tauzin, head of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

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