Friday, March 20, 2009 | 2:05 a.m.
In announcing his choice to lead the beleaguered Food and Drug Administration, President Barack Obama called the country’s food safety system a “hazard to public health.”
Obama picked Dr. Margaret Hamburg to lead the agency and Dr. Joshua Sharfstein to be her chief deputy. His selections have been greeted with praise from public health advocates and organizations, with good reason. Both are highly regarded and have experience at the ground level, as well as in Washington.
Hamburg turned around New York’s health department in the 1990s and served as a health official in the Clinton administration. She also is a bioterrorism expert. Sharfstein, a pediatrician, served as an aide in Congress and now serves as Baltimore’s public health chief.
Revitalizing the FDA is a big job. The agency, particularly in the Bush years when it withered, has been unable to handle its task — ensuring the safety of food, drug, cosmetics and medical devices. Obama has pledged to ask Congress for $1 billion to hire more inspectors and provide for more resources. He also realizes it will take more than money. The government needs to take a more coordinated approach, as the Agriculture Department also shoulders some responsibility for enforcing food safety laws.
Obama has created an interagency working group to provide him with ideas on how to streamline the process and to provide better communication between the agencies. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said creating a united agency to oversee food safety makes sense.
Congress will have to play a role in turning things around, passing a budget equal to the task and giving the FDA the tools to do the job. There have been too many problems with food and drug safety over the past few years because the FDA had been gutted and disregarded by the Bush administration. Those health scares should be a clear sign that the new administration plans to clean up the act of its predecessor.