Obama Taps Ex-NYC Health Commissioner to Lead FDA

President names Margaret Hamburg to oversee food and drug safety.

ByABC News
March 11, 2009, 5:44 PM

March 14, 2009— -- 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Obama said vulnerabilities in the food safety system stemmed in part from outdated guidelines.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.