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.
It was not a blockbuster. You can buy it for just a penny on Amazon (plus $3.99 shipping), where its sales ranking was at No. 2,440,973 yesterday. But writing it piqued Acheson's interest in other food-borne diseases and helped persuade him to take a medical officer job at the FDA in 2002, after becoming a U.S. citizen.
"I found myself more and more frequently in a role as a food safety spokesperson for the agency, and that really took off with spinach," Acheson said, referring to last fall's packaged-spinach crisis. "One thing led to the next. Spinach moved on to tacos. Tacos moved on to peanut butter. Then melamine," the pet food contaminant that also got into pigs, fish and chickens for human consumption.
It was then that FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach asked him to be the agency's first food safety cz . . . -- um -- assistant commissioner.
The task is huge, encompassing a thorough rethinking of how to reduce the toll from food-borne illness. First Acheson wants to speed up the trace-back process by which investigators figure out the source of an outbreak. Longer-term, he wants to work with industry and academia to see where in the food-distribution system contamination is most likely to occur and to devise strategies to fix those weak points.
He also is responsible for communicating risk to the public when outbreaks occur, a difficult task, given the public's emotional relationship to food and people's tendency to distrust government assurances.
Acheson does have personal experience to draw upon. In Britain, he once got a walloping case of food poisoning. "It was one of those ones that hits you about 2 a.m., and you throw up continuously for about 12 hours," he said. He also got felled in India. "My God, I was sick as a dog."
Acheson eats a lot of organic food -- not because he thinks it's safer, but because his wife works at an organic food co-op in Clarksville. He also credits her for getting him to exercise more -- he ran the Baltimore Marathon in 2002, finishing in just over four hours.
But his joints complained, and, these days, he spends his free time gardening, skiing, hiking and -- wouldn't you know it? -- watching his favorite: the Food Network.
"Our food supply is really incredibly safe," Acheson emphasized. "We all eat food three or four times a day or more, and we don't get sick but rarely. Billions of servings of all kinds of food get consumed without any problem."
Yet new challenges are looming, he acknowledges, including today's very efficient distribution systems.
"Spinach picked on Monday is at the processor by Wednesday. It's in the consumer's hands by the following Monday and making them sick three days later. And it's in 40 states," he said. "That's quite daunting in terms of how do you get a handle on that. You don't know what's going on. You don't know if it's a deliberate attack, whether it's coming out of one small field in California or through a processor."
The steep rise in imports, driven in part by U.S. consumers' year-round demand for all kinds of food, complicates matters enormously and may drive the FDA to ask Congress for limited extra authority, Acheson said. But, given the huge array of foods that the FDA regulates, "it would take forever to inspect everything," he said. "You would burn so much money for nothing. It wouldn't buy you any fewer outbreaks or any less illness. It would just buy you a bunch of headaches."
Rather, he said, the FDA needs to focus on the foods and countries that pose the biggest risks, including the newest global players.
"The Chinese have gone from zero to 60 really fast," he said. "Even the best system in the world couldn't keep up with that."
Threats can help, Acheson said, and the FDA will strictly enforce U.S. safety standards. But education and creative training will also be crucial, he said.
Chinese-language Food Network, anyone?