Obama picks FDA chief, starts new food safety panel

Sat Mar 14, 2009 6:01am EDT

*Dr. Margaret Hamburg to head FDA

*Dr. Joshua Scharfstein is deputy

*HHS and USDA to work out new food safety structure

(Updates throughout with background and details)

WASHINGTON, March 14 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama chose food safety and biological and nuclear threat expert Dr. Margaret Hamburg to run the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and announced a new cabinet-level food safety working group on Saturday.

Obama also announced measures to keep meat from 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 be Hamburg's principal deputy.

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

The 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Obama said outdated food safety laws were in part to blame. "It's also because our system of 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.

UNDERFUNDED AND UNDERSTAFFED

"And it's also because 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 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 food safety working group to advise on ways to better coordinate and upgrade food safety laws.

By choosing Hamburg, Obama makes clear the FDA's focus will be safety and not necessarily speeding through drug approvals.

Hamburg headed an Institute of Medicine panel that published a report on microbial threats in 2003, and as New York City health commissioner battled an outbreak of drug-resistant tuberculosis fueled by the AIDS epidemic. [ID:nN14457707]

"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.

"Dr. Hamburg's nomination would mean that FDA would have the leadership it needs at a time when it faces huge challenges."

Obama also highlighted a new USDA rule to keep sick and injured cattle out of slaughterhouses to safeguard against mad cow disease. [ID:nN13459234]

He said Sharfstein would protect consumers as well.

"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. And he's designed an award-winning program to ensure that Americans with disabilities had access to prescription drugs," Obama said.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Maggie Fox, editing by Vicki Allen)





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