The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Obama Picks Hamburg for FDA

Obama Picks Hamburg for FDA

Food Safety Update

April 26, 2009

Over the last decade, the Food and Drug Administration has come under scrutiny for not recognizing problems – like the recent outbreak associated with peanuts – sooner. With the FDA budget lagging behind agencies like the CDC, and a growing list of scandals (i.e. Vioxx and tainted pet food) many legislators have advocated for a full-blown FDA makeover. Now, with Obama’s nomination of Dr. Margaret “Peggy” Hamburg for FDA commissioner, they might get exactly that.

A former New York City health commissioner, Hamburg is best known for creating a tuberculosis control program in New York and helping raise the state’s child immunization rates. Later, as assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the federal Department of Health and Human Services, Hamburg created a bioterrorism initiative and improved protocol for pandemic flu response. 

Obama’s pick represents a clear change from prior administrations, and some say an indication of support for splitting the agencies into two parts – one focusing on food and one focusing on medical products. Hamburg’s expertise in safety and security puts her in a prime position to head up the food side of the agency, while her deputy, pediatrician Joshua Sharfstein, is a critic for the safety of children’s cold medicines.

Frank DiPasquale, N.G.A.’s Executive Vice President and Executive Director of GREF, the Grocers Research and Education Foundation, says that Hamburg’s penchant for science-based decision-making will be extremely important in the development of policy, and that her strong public health background clearly indicates the main concerns of the President.

“Many in Congress feel that we need to solve problems first and then decide on structure. As is often said, form follows function. My sense is that her selection represents Obama’s priority – food safety. It is possible that the FDA could be split, but never underestimate the institutional knowledge that could be lost as a consequence,” says DiPasquale.

Will Hamburg’s appointment be enough to solve the agencies problems? Critics say that the FDA simply doesn’t have the tools or resources to prevent outbreaks, regardless of who is at its helm, and that Congress should appropriate more money and authority to an agency that suffered neglect and a shrinking staff under prior administrations.

So far, though, consumer groups have responded very positively to Hamburg’s nomination. The response from other groups has been positive too.

“Although Hamburg has a very favorable reputation as a public health official, she is relatively inexperienced in dealing with the private sector,” says DiPasquale. “We all hope that she has the demonstrated leadership skills to outline a clear sense of vision and mission of the agency, as well as the political might to fight for the resources that the FDA so desperately needs."

The FDA currently regulates approximately 80% of the nation’s food supply, however, no FDA official works full time in food safety. Restructuring the agency to form a separate food safety administration, or FSA, would give the FDA additional powers – like the ability to order recalls and increase inspections. Rep. Rosa DeLauro’s bill in Congress supports the split and proposes an additional $775 million to the existing $1.9 billion federal FDA budget.