Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Who's Minding The [Food Safety] Store?

May 19, 2009

Yesterday, the Senate confirmed the appointment of Margaret Hamburg as the new FDA Commissioner. She joins HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at the top of the US Food Safety triumvirate. 

Dr. David Acheson and Dr. Stephen Sundlof – holdovers from the Bush Administration – continue to fill supporting roles as FDA Associate Commissioner for Food, and Director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, respectively.

As usual, food safety is “tail-end Charlie” at USDA. The current FSIS Administrator, Alfred Almanza, is a holdover from the previous Administration. President Obama has yet to nominate a new Administrator for this most senior food safety position at USDA. Meanwhile, the positions of Undersecretary and Deputy Undersecretary of Agriculture for Food Safety also continue unfilled.

Vilsack, Sibelius and Hamburg most likely will guide US food safety policy for the remainder of President Obama’s first term. What do we know about them, and what do their appointments tell us about the President’s true commitment to revamping the US food safety infrastructure?

Secretary Tom Vilsack (Agriculture): Former Governor of Iowa. Secretary Vilsack was a supporter of biodiesel and ethanol production, health care reform and education reform during his tenure as Governor. He also led agricultural trade missions, promoting sales of his state’s agricultural products. The Secretary’s official biography makes no mention of his stance on food safety.

Secretary Kathleen Sibelius (Health and Human Services): Former Governor of Kansas; former Kansas Insurance Commissioner. The Secretary’s official biography does not even mention food safety. In her written testimony, submitted during her confirmation hearing, she stated, “… health reform would be my mission …”

FDA Commissioner Margaret “Peggy” Hamburg: Former Assistant Health Secretary in the Clinton Administration; Former New York City Health Commissioner. Dr. Hamburg is described as an expert in bio-terrorism. 

Secretaries Vilsack and Sibelius both were strong supporters of President Obama during his nomination campaign. Their appointments are highly political. Neither they, nor FDA Commissioner Hamburg, can claim any significant background or record regarding food safety. These are the people who now lead the President’s new Food Safety Working Group

The American consumer deserves – and should demand – the appointment of a Cabinet Secretary whose primary mission is food safety. This crucial public health sector must not continue to be a political football.

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