- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Food safety beefed up

President Obama has called the increasing number of incidents of contaminated food in the country a serious and unacceptable public health hazard and has vowed to strengthen food safety laws and beef up inspection efforts.

In his weekly radio Saturday, the president said a “billion-dollar effort” has been launched to improve Food and Drug Administration (FDA) laboratories and to hire more food inspectors.

A lack of adequate funding has resulted in the agency’s only having enough inspectors to visit 7,000 of the nation’s 150,000 food processing plants and warehouses each year, Mr. Obama said.

“Protecting the safety of our food and drugs is one of the most fundamental responsibilities government has,” Mr. Obama said. “It’s a responsibility that I intend to uphold in the months and years to come.”

The average number of outbreaks from contaminated produce and other foods has increased to almost 350 a year — up from 100 a year in the early 1990s, the administration says.

Mr. Obama also used the radio address to announce that he was appointing former New York City Health Commissioner Margaret Hamburg as FDA commissioner and Baltimore Health Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein as her deputy.

Ms. Hamburg formerly served as the assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the Health and Human Services Department, and the assistant director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health.

Cost of unhealthy babies

A new report commissioned by the March of Dimes shows that medical costs to businesses for the care of one premature baby for a year could cover the costs for almost a dozen healthy, full-term infants.

The study, to be released Tuesday, finds that average medical cost for healthy full-term babies from birth through their first birthday was $4,551 in 2007, of which more than $3,000 was paid for by health insurance. For premature or low-birth-weight babies, the average cost was almost $50,000, with insurance paying more than $46,000.

Preventing premature birth is a significant way to rein in skyrocketing health care costs and help business survive, said March of Dimes President Jennifer L. Howse.

And “the best prevention of prematurely is good maternity care,” she said.

The analyses also found that premature infants spent on average more than 14 days hospitalized before their first birthday, compared with a little more than two days for healthy, full-term infants and that they averaged more than 21 outpatient medical visits compared with just 14 for full-term infants.

The March of Dimes is a nonprofit group that works to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, premature birth and infant mortality.

Drug development

Despite the nation’s economic slowdown, U.S. pharmaceutical research and biotechnology companies invested a record $65.2 billion last year in the research and development (R&D) of new medicines and vaccines, said the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).

Drugmakers spent about $2 billion more on research and development in 2008 compared with the previous year, according to a survey by PhRMA, the nation’s largest pharmaceutical lobbying group.

PhRMA-member companies alone invested an estimated $50.3 billion for R&D last year — up from the previous record of $47.9 billion in 2007, according to the survey.

“America’s pharmaceutical research and biotechnology companies are not immune to the challenges presented by our current economic crisis,” PhRMA President and Chief Executive Officer Billy Tauzin said. “However, the important work that we do every day in the battle with disease cannot stop.”

The group says there are more than 2,900 medicines in development in the United States, including 750 for cancer, 312 for heart disease and stroke, 150 for diabetes, 109 for HIV/AIDS and 91 for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

On the Hill

The House Energy and Commerce health subcommittee will conduct a hearing Tuesday titled “Making Health Care Work for American Families: Ensuring Affordable Coverage.” The hearing will begin at 10 a.m. at the Rayburn House Office Building, Room 2123.

On Wednesday, Dr. Carolyn Clancy, director of the Health and Human Services Department’s Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality will testify before the Senate Finance Committee health care subcommittee.

Scheduled to also give testimony at the hearing, titled “What Is Health Care Quality and Who Decides,” are Dr. Marjorie Kanof, managing director for health care with the Government Accountability Office, and Dr. Brent C. James, executive director of the Institute for Healthcare Delivery Research at Intermountain Healthcare in Salt Lake City.

The hearing will take place at 2:30 p.m. at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Room 215.

Sean Lengell can be reached at slengell@washingtontimes.com.

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