Washington – President Barack Obama says the nation’s decades-old food safety system is a “hazard to public health” and in need of an overhaul, starting with the selection of a new head of the federal 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 FDA commissioner, and his choice of Baltimore Health Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein as her deputy.
The president also said he was creating a Food Safety Working Group to coordinate food safety laws throughout government and advise him on how to update them. Many of these laws, essential to safeguarding the public from disease, haven’t been touched since they were written in the time of President Theodore Roosevelt, he said.
Obama said the food safety system is too spread out, making it difficult to share information and solve problems.
He also blamed recent underfunding and understaffing at FDA that has left the agency unable to conduct annual inspections of more than a fraction of the 150,000 food processing plants and warehouses in the country.
“That is a hazard to public health. It is unacceptable. And it will change under the leadership of Dr. Margaret Hamburg,” Obama pledged.
Hamburg, 53, is a well-known 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 two doctors. Her mother was the first black woman to earn a medical degree from Yale University, and she credits her Jewish 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 leading role in overseeing the pharmaceutical industry.
Both are doctors and outsiders to the troubled agency who will face the daunting challenge of trying to turn it around.
Hamburg’s appointment requires Senate confirmation; Sharfstein’s does not.
Obama said while he doesn’t believe government has the answer to every problem, there are certain things that only government can do such as “ensuring that the foods we eat and the medicines we take are safe and don’t cause us harm.”
“Protecting the safety of our food and drugs is one of the most fundamental responsibilities government has,” he said.
Obama cited a string of breakdowns in assuring food safety in recent years from contaminated spinach in 2006 to salmonella in peppers and possibly tomatoes last year. This year, a massive salmonella outbreak in peanut products has sickened more than 600 people, is suspected of causing nine deaths and led to one of the largest product recalls in U.S. history.
These cases are a “painful reminder of how tragic the consequences can be when food producers act irresponsibly and government is unable to do its job,” Obama said, noting that contaminated food outbreaks have more than tripled to nearly 350 a year from 100 incidents annually in the early 1990s.
The FDA’s work will be part of the larger effort undertaken by the Food Safety Working Group.
Obama also announced a complete ban on the slaughter of cows too sick or weak to stand on their own, to keep them out of the food supply. So-called “downer” cows are at increased risk for mad cow disease, E. coli and other infections, partly because they typically wallow in feces.
Downer cattle are already mostly banned from slaughter, but the new rule would end an exception or loophole that allowed some “downer” cattle into the food supply if they passed an additional veterinary inspection.
Obama’s action finalizes a rule announced last year following the nation’s largest beef recall, which involved a slaughterhouse in Chino, Calif., where downer cows entered the food supply.
Obama said he takes food safety seriously not just as a president, but as the parent of daughters 10 and 7 years old.
When he learned of the peanut product recall, Obama said he immediately thought of his younger daughter, Sasha, who eats peanut butter sandwiches several times a week.
“No parent should have to worry that their child is going to get sick from their lunch,” he said.