FDA Chief: Agency Is Committed to Improving on Food Safety Issues

BY Betty Ann Bowser  June 9, 2010 at 6:21 PM EDT

Lettuce at supermarket, Credit: Flickr user Santheo

U.S. Food and Drug Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg told the PBS NewsHour Wednesday that a recent report criticizing the agency for its handling of food safety issues was “very much on message and it reinforces the direction we have been moving our foods program over this past year.”

The report by the Institute of Medicine, an independent non-profit organization that makes policy recommendations to the government, said the FDA’s approach to food safety continues to be “reactive” and “lacks vision.”

This finding came a little over a year after Hamburg — appointed by President Obama — assumed her role as FDA Commissioner. It was a move that some observers said marked a new day for the agency that not only oversees about 80 percent of the nation’s food supply, but also regulates more than $1 trillion worth of consumer goods, including foreign imports — everything from drugs and medical devices to dog food and face creams.

The FDA’s efforts to police the food products have long been under fire from members of Congress, public policy organizations and citizen watchdog groups who say the agency lacks the funding, personnel and drive to prevent food borne illness, commonly known as food poisoning.

There are about 76 million food borne illnesses each year. More than 5,000 people die and 300,000 people are hospitalized as a result of consuming food tainted by E. coli, Salmonella, viruses or parasites. Over the past year, peanut butter, spinach, Nestle cookie dough and lettuce have been among the contaminated foods that have made headlines for killing or sickening Americans.

“The criticism points to an important area of effort and it is one that we embrace,” Hamburg said of the 500-page IOM report. But she said the FDA is making progress since she took over its leadership to develop risk assessment strategies to combat outbreaks of food borne disease. The 54-year-old Yale-trained physician said she wants the FDA “to ensure that problems will not arise, rather then chasing them after the fact.”

For more than 10 years the FDA has lost significant numbers of personnel working on food safety and other policing areas amid budget cuts imposed by Congress.

And although Congress has indicated some willingness to increase funding, the president has named a Food Safety Working Group to examine what needs to be done in the area and Hamburg has created a new office of Foods within FDA, the IOM still found the agency needs major reform from within to keep the public safe from contaminated food.

When asked what she’s done in her first year on the job to transform the much maligned image of FDA, Hamburg said she thought her efforts to make the agency more “transparent” had largely been successful. And she said her mantra to make FDA’s decisions more “science-based” have also begun to change public perceptions of the agency.

“We can do better and we must do better,” she said and “I am committed to that in my leadership here”.

However, Hamburg said the funding and resource problems FDA faces are not small and it will take time to change the culture of a federal government agency that has been operating a certain way for decades.

Watch the PBS NewsHour in the coming weeks for more from Betty Ann Bowser’s conversation with Dr. Margaret Hamburg about her role as FDA commissioner.