Obama Targets Food Safety

President Obama meets with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the Oval Office, and interpreters work behind them. Lula told reporters last week that he hoped to see the United States work to ease what he says have often been hostile relations with Latin America.
President Obama meets with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the Oval Office, and interpreters work behind them. Lula told reporters last week that he hoped to see the United States work to ease what he says have often been hostile relations with Latin America. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 15, 2009

President Obama accused the Bush administration yesterday of creating a "hazard to public health" by failing to curb food contamination problems, and he announced new leadership and other changes aimed at modernizing food-safety laws.

In his weekly address to the nation, Obama said he is forming a Food Safety Working Group to "upgrade our food safety laws for the 21st century," and he formally named former New York City health chief Margaret A. Hamburg as his new Food and Drug Administration commissioner. Baltimore Health Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein will be Hamburg's deputy, he said.

Obama also said he will ask Congress for $1 billion in new funds to add inspectors and modernize laboratories, and announced that the Agriculture Department is moving ahead with a rule change banning all sick or disabled cattle from entering the food supply. The change had stalled during the last months of the Bush administration, which allowed some "downer cows" to be slaughtered for sale.

"There are certain things only a government can do," Obama said. "And one of those things is ensuring that the foods we eat, and the medicines we take, are safe and do not cause us harm."

The announcements signaled another shift from the policies of President George W. Bush, whom Democrats accused of ignoring a worsening food-safety problem and politicizing the work of the FDA. The changes also follow outbreaks of illness from pathogens in food, including peanut products contaminated with salmonella that have killed nine and sickened more than 700 in recent months.

Consumer groups, food-safety advocates, patients' organizations and others from across the political spectrum praised the choice of Hamburg and Sharfstein for the FDA, which has struggled to retain public confidence amid outbreaks of food-borne illnesses, poisoning scares and drug controversies. The FDA is charged with overseeing the safety of most foods, medical devices, and prescription and over-the-counter drugs, which together amount to about 25 percent of all consumer spending.

Hamburg, 53, is a physician and bioterrorism expert who served as an assistant health secretary during the Clinton administration. She is widely credited with helping to turn around a demoralized New York City health department and cutting rates of drug-resistant tuberculosis. Hamburg's appointment requires Senate confirmation.

Sharfstein, 39, is a pediatrician who has served as Baltimore's health commissioner and who worked as a health policy aide to Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), now chairman of the commerce committee. Sharfstein attracted national attention when he took on the drug industry and petitioned the FDA in 2007 to restrict the use of over-the-counter cough and cold medications for young children.

Waxman said in a statement yesterday that Hamburg and Sharfstein have "strong public health credentials and demonstrated management abilities. These appointments give me great hope for the future of the FDA."

The American Public Health Association said Hamburg's nomination "signals a commitment to protecting consumer health," while the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America said it "applauds President Obama for his expeditious selection."

The move to ban the butchering of disabled cattle also garnered accolades from groups including the Humane Society of the United States, which released videotapes in 2007 showing the abuse of sick and crippled dairy cows at a California slaughterhouse. The videos led to the largest meat recall in U.S. history, as well as protests overseas over the safety of U.S. meat.

Most disabled cattle were banned from the U.S. food supply in January 2004 after the discovery of the first U.S. case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which has been linked to downer cattle. But the Bush administration allowed exceptions and did not follow through on promises to plug the loophole last year after the uproar over the beef recall.

"The closing of the loophole improves the welfare of animals and strengthens the safety of our nation's food supply," the Humane Society said in a statement.

Obama noted in his address that many of the nation's food-safety laws "have not been updated since they were written in the time of Teddy Roosevelt," and said the FDA was "underfunded and understaffed" during Bush's tenure. Obama said that outbreaks of illness from contaminated food have risen from 100 a year in the 1990s to 350 a year now and that only 5 percent of the nation's 150,000 food processing plants are inspected each year. "That is a hazard to public health," he said. "It is unacceptable."

The president also invoked his status as a parent, saying that his 7-year-old daughter, Sasha, "has peanut butter sandwiches for lunch probably three times a week."

"No parent should have to worry that their child is going to get sick from their lunch, just as no family should have to worry that the medicines they are buying will cause them harm," he said. "Protecting the safety of our food and drugs is one of the most fundamental responsibilities government has."

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