Meet David Acheson: Your Stomach's Best Friend

(By Pouya Dianat -- The Washington Post)
By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Climbing the ranks in public health can be a frustrating business. Nobody knows your name when bird flu is under control, when pets are not poisoned, when bacteria-laden burgers aren't making kids sick. But a run of really bad crises can launch your career.

That, at least, is the modest explanation that David Acheson offers for his meteoric climb from an anonymous physician with a quiet passion for microbes to his recent appointment as the Food and Drug Administration's assistant commissioner for food protection -- or, in the media lingo that he abhors, "food safety czar."

Like an Oscar recipient thanking the cast, Acheson credits E. coli, salmonella and the host of other pathogens that skulk about in food. "I was in the right place at the right times," he says.

Former co-workers say that's giving the bugs too much credit.

"David is incredibly hardworking," said Cheleste M. Thorpe, an assistant professor of medicine at Tufts-New England Medical Center in Boston who used to work with Acheson. "He was always the first one in in the morning, the one whose door opened at 7. And he'd been up since 4:30 exercising and walking his dog."

He's willing to get his hands dirty, too, said Thorpe, who with Acheson studied bacteria that live in the digestive systems of animals.

"We'd get these huge chests filled with Ziploc bags full of frozen animal poop. The protocol called for them to be thawed, weighed out and cultured in these big flasks," Thorpe said.

"The technician found this to be an unpleasant part of the job. Ditto for us. So David would come in every day and weigh out the animal poop. We'd all leave the lab. That was all Acheson."

Acheson, 51, is trim and amicable and seems comfortable in the crisp white shirt and silk tie that have replaced his lab coat. He's got a British accent but no trace of stuffiness. In a recent interview at FDA headquarters in Rockville, he talked about his passion for public education and his commitment to making the wobbly global food-safety system work better -- even though he's acutely aware that, in his new position, a food-related outbreak has as much potential to break his career as to make it.

That wasn't the case in 1993, when four children died and hundreds got sick after eating hamburgers from Jack in the Box tainted with E. coli O157:H7. At the time, he was an infectious-diseases doctor from London who just happened to be doing research in Boston on that bacterium's deadly toxin.

"People were asking, 'What is this bug? Who knows about it?' " Acheson said. "I was one of the few people in the United States who had worked on it. I was an expert!"

Acheson became something of a spokesman on E. coli, and that bout of media exposure helped him realize that he was good at public health education. Dell Publishing noticed, too, and offered him a book contract. The result, with a pair of writers, was "Safe Eating: Protect Yourself and Your Family Against Deadly Bacteria," an authoritative 352-page consumer guide.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company