Obama Taps Ex-NYC Health Commissioner to Lead FDA

As he announced a new head of the Food and Drug Administration today, President Barack Obama laid out plans for an extensive overhaul of the agency, including a billion-dollar investment to keep tainted peanut butter and tomatoes out of the food supply and to protect patients from contaminated medications like the blood thinner heparin.

"Food safety is something I take seriously, not just as your president, but as a parent," Obama said in his weekly video address. "When I heard peanut products were being contaminated earlier this year, I immediately thought of my 7-year-old daughter, Sasha, who 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 buy will cause them harm."

Obama tapped former New York City health commissioner Margaret Hamburg to be the new FDA commissioner. The Senate must confirm the appointment.

The president's plan would boost the number of food inspectors and modernize labs to better keep tabs on the nation's food supply. It would also take steps to ensure sick cows don't enter the food supply.

Of the past way of doing things, Obama said, "That is a hazard to public health. It is unacceptable. And it will change under the leadership of Dr. Margaret Hamburg."

Obama said vulnerabilities in the food safety system stemmed in part from outdated guidelines.

"Part of the reason is that many of the laws and regulations governing food safety in America have not been updated since they were written in the time of Teddy Roosevelt," he said.

Baltimore health commissioner Joshua Sharfstein was named principal deputy commissioner of the FDA, the No. 2 slot.

By putting two public health officials in charge of the organization, the president is seeking to revitalize the FDA as a public health agency, health experts said.

Commenting on the Hamburg and Sharfstein picks, Sid Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's health research group, told ABC News this week that he couldn't think of two people with more extensive on-the-ground experience in public health.

Challenges That Await the FDA

If confirmed by the Senate, Hamburg will take the reins of an agency dogged by controversy.

"There are few jobs in the federal government that are as tough or important as FDA commissioner," Consumers Union director of food policy initiatives Jean Halloran said in a statement this week.

"Dr. Hamburg would first have to help the FDA get the budget and authority it needs so it can visit food processors every year, instead of once every 10 years, and can inspect their records and impose meaningful penalties on violators," Halloran said.

Widely reported to have been the frontrunner for the post, Hamburg is an expert in bioterrorism and served as a health policy adviser to President Bill Clinton. Before serving as New York City's health commissioner from 1991 to 1997, she specialized in infectious disease as an assistant director at the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

"She has been forward-thinking in her approach both to medical and food security issues -- a quality that should enable her to return the FDA to its role as a trusted, effective regulatory agency," said Michael Jacobson, executive director for Center for Science in the Public Interest in a Saturday statement.

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