FDA nominee pledges to revamp food safety
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By RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR – 2 hours ago
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's pick to oversee food and drug safety pledged on Thursday to revamp protection of the nation's food supply to help prevent future disease outbreaks.
Dr. Margaret Hamburg, a bioterrorism expert who once served as New York City health commissioner, also says she wants to restore public confidence in the Food and Drug Administration by putting science first and running an open and accountable operation.
One of her first tasks, if confirmed, will be overseeing development of a vaccine for the new swine flu.
Hamburg, 53, is scheduled this afternoon to appear before a Senate committee considering her nomination to run the troubled agency. A copy of her opening remarks was made available to reporters.
"The agency is facing a range of new and daunting challenges," Hamburg said in her written statement. "These include the globalization of food and drug production, the emergence of new and complex medical technologies, and the risk of deliberate terror attacks on our food and drug supplies."
The FDA oversees products ranging from peanut butter, to cancer drugs, to medical imaging machines — a portfolio that represents about a quarter of consumer products. A few years ago, it was shaken by the withdrawal from the market of Vioxx, a painkiller that turned out to have serious heart risks. More recently, outbreaks of foodborne illness have exposed its haphazard oversight of the nation's far-flung food supply chain. Within the agency, scientists in the medical devices center are in revolt over what they say is management interference. And a federal judge recently ruled that the FDA improperly politicized a decision on emergency birth control during the Bush administration.
On top of all that, the FDA must play a critical role in developing a vaccine for the new swine flu virus and ensuring that enough can be made to protect the public.
Hamburg, as an assistant health secretary under President Bill Clinton, helped lay the groundwork for the government's bioterrorism and flu pandemic preparations.
She will make the flu vaccine her most immediate priority. "I look forward to being actively involved in discussion on such critical issues as how much vaccine to make, whether to alter seasonal vaccine manufacturing, and, ultimately, whether to recommend vaccination for the American people," Hamburg said.
Vaccinating the entire population for swine flu would be a huge task, perhaps requiring more than one shot. It would also have to be coordinated with preparations for the regular flu season.
Food safety will be Hamburg's top priority after the flu. She wants to shift from chasing outbreaks after they have broken out to preventing them first. That's going to require new laws mandating producers to have written safety plans, as well as greater federal oversight of those plans. Import safety is another weak link.
"Important steps must be taken to better protect the nation's food supply from farm to fork," said Hamburg.
Hamburg's professional career has centered on public health. She is the daughter of two doctors, and her family background is African-American and Jewish. Her mother was the first black woman to earn a medical degree from Yale University. She credits her father's side of the family for imbuing in her a passion for social concerns. She is expected to win Senate confirmation.
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