U.S. Health Secretary Nominee Sebelius Vows Food Safety Upgrade

April 1, 2009

Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius vowed Tuesday to make the Food and Drug Administration a “world class” regulatory agency and to work with industry to improve food safety if she is confirmed as health and human services secretary.

Sebelius told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee it was too soon to talk about splitting FDA’s food and drug safety responsibilities into two agencies as some critics have suggested.

“I think step one is restoring FDA as a world class regulatory agency,” Sebelius said at the first of two Senate confirmation hearings scheduled for this week.

Sebelius was tapped by President Barack Obama to lead his push to revamp the $2.5 trillion U.S. healthcare industry to rein in exploding costs and provide coverage for an estimated 46 million Americans who lack health insurance.

As health and human services secretary, Sebelius would oversee the FDA, the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the Medicare and Medicaid health programs for the elderly and poor.

Committee Chairman Edward Kennedy said he strongly supported her nomination, with other members also voicing their support. Sebelius is due to testify Thursday before the Senate Finance Committee, which will vote on the nomination before it is taken up by the full Senate.

Sebelius Tuesday became the latest Obama nominee to reveal income tax issues, saying in a letter to members of the finance committee that she had paid nearly $8,000 to settle “unintentional errors” over three years.

Obama’s first choice as health secretary, former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, withdrew after he acknowledged he delayed payment of some $140,000 in taxes and fines.

But Sebelius appeared to be in no imminent danger.

Senator Max Baucus, the Democratic head of the finance committee, said he supported her nomination. A spokeswoman for Charles Grassley, its ranking Republican, said the senator “generally reserves judgment on nominees until the vetting process, including the nomination hearing, is completed.”


Sebelius told Kennedy’s committee that improving the nation’s food safety required industry involvement as well as beefing up the regulatory agency. A spate of product recalls because of salmonella contamination has undermined public confidence in the FDA, sparking calls for revamping it.

“We need to involve industry in making sure that we look at products as they move through the food chain and that there is some collaborative operation to make sure that those supply chains are also very involved in keeping our people safe,” Sebelius said.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told a House Appropriations subcommittee at a separate hearing that too many different agencies are responsible for food safety.

“It seems to me today we have competing philosophies,” said Vilsack, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture focused more on prevention and the FDA aiming for damage control because of limited resources.

Fifteen federal agencies, including the FDA and USDA, are responsible for food safety.

On Monday, a California company recalled 2 million pounds of pistachios because of possible salmonella contamination and the FDA told consumers to avoid all pistachio products.

Salmonella in peanut products traced to two plants sickened more than 700 people over the past four months and forced the recall of 3,000 products.

Sebelius, a former insurance commissioner in Kansas, told the committee she shared Obama’s objectives for overhauling the U.S. healthcare system and she would work to ensure that costs are addressed at the same time coverage is expanded to the uninsured.

“Inaction is not an option,” she said. “The status quo is unacceptable and unsustainable.”

U.S. healthcare costs doubled from 1996 to 2006 and now account for more than 16 percent of the economy, nearly twice the average of other developed nations. (Editing by John O’Callaghan)

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