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Obama picks Hamburg to head FDA

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 16-Mar-2009

President Obama has named his pick for Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner: Food safety and bioterrorism expert Dr Margaret Hamburg.

If confirmed by the Senate, Hamburg will head an agency that has been severely criticized following a number of high-profile food and drug safety scandals, including the latest salmonella outbreak linked to peanut products, which has been linked to at least nine deaths.

Obama promised a ‘complete review’ of the FDA at the end of January amid calls from food industry representatives, consumer groups and the Government Accountability Office for an overhaul of the FDA.

The long-anticipated nomination has been welcomed by industry and consumer groups, representing both food and pharmaceutical interests – which could prove crucial in gaining confirmation from the Senate.

Obama also chose Baltimore health commissioner Dr Joshua Sharfstein – well-known for his efforts to ensure the safety of children’s cough medicine – as Hamburg’s chief deputy.

Positive industry response

Responding to the news, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) said: “The President’s appointment of these two prominent public health professionals is a clear signal that this Administration has placed a priority on bolstering FDA’s food safety role.”

A group of nine FDA scientists called the agency “fundamentally broken” in a letter to the President in January, and a rash of legislation for its reform has been proposed over the past two months in both the House and the Senate.

Many are hoping that the appointment of Hamburg and Sharfstein will signal the beginning of improvements at the FDA, particularly in terms of focus on food safety.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s (CSPI) executive director Michael Jacobson said: “While most past commissioners have focused primarily on the drug side of FDA, Drs Hamburg and Sharfstein both are well aware the FDA also regulates foods. They will have additional resources and, I hope, new statutory authorities to improve on FDA’s dismal record in the area of food safety and nutrition.”

Funding

Several organizations, including CSPI and Consumers Union, have previously called for additional funding for the FDA, and on February 26, Obama proposed an increase to $1bn, as opposed to the $662m requested for 2009 under the Bush administration.

Consumers Union director of food policy initiatives Jean Halloran said: “The FDA has been understaffed and underfunded for too long, and has not been able to do its job of policing the marketplace to keep it safe. Dr Hamburg would first have to help FDA get the budget and authority it needs so it can visit food processors every year, instead of once every ten years, and can inspect their records and impose meaningful penalties on violators.”

Hamburg has experience as a physician, as well as in drug research and public health, and was New York City’s health commissioner from 1991 to 1997.

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