Web Date: March 16, 2009
President Names New FDA Team
President Barak Obama has nominated former New York City Health Commissioner Margaret "Peggy" A. Hamburg as head of the Food & Drug Administration and Baltimore Health Commissioner Joshua M. Sharfstein as her deputy. In his weekly address to the nation on March 14, Obama also announced his plans to create a Food Safety Working Group to modernize and enforce food safety laws and coordinate food safety measures across the federal government.
"There are certain things only a government can do. And one of those things is ensuring that the foods we eat, and the medicines we take, are safe and don't cause us harm," Obama said during his address. The President renewed his pledge to ask Congress for $1 billion in the 2010 federal budget to increase the number of food inspections and FDA staff needed to protect the food supply.
Obama's move to target food safety follows a series of foodborne illness outbreaks over the last few years and a disturbing trend in which the average number of outbreaks from contaminated food has grown from about 100 per year in the early 1990s to about 350 per year today.
When nominating Hamburg, Obama noted that she brings a reputation of integrity and a record of making Americans more secure. While serving as health commissioner of New York City, she "brought a new life to a demoralized agency, leading an internationally-recognized initiative that cut the tuberculosis rate by nearly half, and overseeing food safety in our nation???s largest city," Obama said. Hamburg is currently a senior scientist with expertise in biodefense at the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative.
Consumer advocacy groups, food safety experts, and other stakeholders welcomed the increased focus on food safety as well as the news of Hamburg and Sharfstein as leaders for FDA. As a team, they are expected to refocus the beleaguered FDA and make public health a priority.
Hamburg has "a substantial set of skills, experience, and commitment to public health that makes her ideal," says William K. Hubbard, former senior associate commissioner of FDA and a critic of the agency since he retired.
Sharfstein is best known for his efforts to protect young children from unsafe over-the-counter cough and cold medications and lead in jewelry. He "has not only the knowledge, but also the experience on Capitol Hill and as the health commissioner of a major city, to be an excellent deputy," Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition and health advocacy group, said in a statement.
Hubbard praises the Obama administration's support for food safety, adding that he hopes it will give an extra boost to Congress' legislative efforts to overhaul America's antiquated food safety system and outdated laws. Several lawmakers, including Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chair of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, also voiced their support for Hamburg and Sharfstein. "This is a team that has strong public health credentials and demonstrated management abilities. These appointments give me great hope for the future of the FDA," Waxman said in a statement.
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