- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 7, 2009

President Obama’s pick to head the Food and Drug Administration vowed to restore public trust in the troubled agency by beefing up efforts to protect the nation’s food supply and ensuring that vaccines for flu and other diseases are readily available.

Dr. Margaret Hamburg, a bioterrorism expert and former New York City health commissioner, told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee she also would work to ensure that the agency makes its decisions based on science — not politics — if confirmed as its commissioner.

“As FDA commissioner, I would strive to lead an agency that appropriately balances innovation with regulation,” Dr. Hamburg said during her afternoon confirmation hearing. “The American people place a huge amount of trust in the FDA.”

Dr. Hamburg said the FDA must work to prevent future problems as well as responding to a crisis.

One of her first priorities if confirmed, she said, would be to review the FDA’s handling of the H1N1 — or swine flu — virus.

But restoring public confidence in the FDA in the wake of several high-profile food-contamination outbreaks in recent years is among the most paramount challenges for the next commissioner.

“Important steps must be taken to better protect the nation’s food supply — from farm to fork — to strengthen our food-safety system so we can prevent outbreaks from happening in the first place,” Dr. Hamburg said. “Globally, this means increasing FDA’s attention and energies to import safety and working more closely with our international allies.”

The FDA’s public image has taken a beating in recent years after failing to catch problems with drugs such as Merck’s Vioxx, which was pulled from the market in 2004. And a recent contamination of peanuts linked to the Peanut Corporation of America, which resulted in the recall of thousands of products, highlighted a shortage of agency food inspectors.

Dr. Frank M. Torti, the FDA’s acting commissioner, also drew criticism this year from whistle-blower advocates for an internal memorandum warning employees against speaking out against the agency. The letter was condemned by Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, who said it went “beyond legitimate privacy concerns.”

Dr. Hamburg promised not to stifle whistle-blowers, saying that “science is best served by robust discussion.”

“I think whistle-blowers serve a very critical role in government,” she added. “As leader of the FDA, I would very much want to create a culture where all voices were heard… . In the final analysis, I think that is the best way for decisions to be made.”

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