WASHINGTON – The nation’s food safety system is a “hazard to public health” and overdue for an overhaul, President Barack Obama said Saturday as he filled the top job at the Food and Drug Administration.
Obama used his weekly radio and video address to announce the nomination of former New York City Health Commissioner Margaret Hamburg as agency commissioner and the selection of Baltimore’s health commissioner, Joshua Sharfstein, as her deputy. Consumer groups applauded the picks.
The president also is creating a special advisory group to coordinate food safety laws and recommend how to update them. Many of these laws have not changed since they were written early in the last century, he said.
Obama said too many agencies are responsible for food safety, making it difficult to share information and stop problems from falling through the cracks.
The FDA does not have enough money or workers to conduct annual inspections at more than a fraction of the 150,000 food processing plants and warehouses in the country, Obama said.
“That is a hazard to public health. It is unacceptable. And it will change under the leadership of Dr. Margaret Hamburg,” he pledged.
Hamburg, 53, is a bioterrorism expert. She was an assistant health secretary under President Bill Clinton and helped lay the groundwork for the government’s bioterrorism and flu pandemic preparations.
As New York City’s top health official in the early 1990s, she created a program that cut high rates of drug-resistant tuberculosis. She is the daughter of doctors. Her mother was the first black woman to earn a medical degree from Yale University, and she credits her father for instilling in her a passion for public health.
Sharfstein, 39, is a pediatrician who has challenged the FDA on the safety of over-the-counter cold medicines for children. He also served as a health policy aide to Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who plays a key role in overseeing the pharmaceutical industry.
Both are doctors and outsiders to the troubled agency and will face the challenge of trying to turn it around.
Those with a stake in the FDA’s work, from health and consumer groups to the food and drug industries, said Obama made good choices.