The Senate has confirmed President Barack Obama’s pick to oversee food and drug safety, two areas that are vital to consumers and widely seen as in critical need of improvement.
Dr. Margaret Hamburg, a bioterrorism expert, will be sworn in as the 21st commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and only the second woman to hold the post in 100 years of agency history. The Senate confirmed her nomination by voice vote.
Her first priority will be to help direct development of a vaccine for the new swine flu. She says she also wants to revamp food safety.
The FDA oversees goods ranging from peanut butter to cancer drugs to medical imaging machines –a portfolio that represents about a quarter of consumer products.
But its reputation has been tarnished. A few years ago, the agency was shaken by the withdrawal of Vioxx, a painkiller that turned out to have serious heart risks. Recurring outbreaks of foodborne illness have exposed its haphazard oversight of the nation’s food supply. A federal judge recently ruled that the FDA politicized a decision on emergency contraception during the Bush administration. And morale problems keep spilling out into the open.
Hamburg, 53, told senators at her confirmation hearing that she wants to restore public confidence in the agency by putting science first and running an open and accountable operation.
As an assistant health secretary under President Bill Clinton, Hamburg helped lay the groundwork for the government’s bioterrorism and flu pandemic preparations. Before that, she ran the New York City health department. Her tenure saw improvement in childhood vaccinations, a reduction in the number of new HIV cases, and praise for the way the agency helped contain an epidemic of drug-resistant tuberculosis.
On food safety, Hamburg says she wants to shift from chasing outbreaks after they have broken out to preventing them in the first place. But that will require sustained effort, more money and stronger laws.
Hamburg’s professional career has centered on public health. She is the daughter of two doctors, and her family background includes African-American and Jewish heritage. Her mother was the first black woman to earn a medical degree from Yale University. She credits her father’s side of the family for imbuing in her a passion for social concerns.
Hamburg’s predecessor at the FDA was a cancer specialist. Her selection means the two top jobs at the agency will be held by people with a strong public health focus. Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, the deputy commissioner, is a pediatrician who until recently served as Baltimore’s health director.
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