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Obama appoints FDA Commissioner, pledges to clean up agency

President Obama nominated former New York City Health Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, MD, as FDA commissioner on Saturday and pledged to overhaul the antiquated food management system.

"That is a hazard to public health. It is unacceptable. And it will change under the leadership of Dr. Margaret Hamburg," Obama said, according to AP.

Hamburg, whose appointment is pending confirmation from the Senate, will be joined by Joshua Sharfstein as her new deputy. Both are doctors and from outside the agency.

Hamburg, the daughter of two doctors and a senior scientist at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, served as assistant health secretary during the Clinton administration. She is credited with creating a program in the 1990s in New York City that reduced rates of drug-resistant tuberculosis.

Sharfstein, a pediatrician, has challenged the FDA on the safety of over-the-counter cold medicines for children. That and his former position under Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., a critic of the pharmaceutical and supplement industries, has led to some speculation about tighter requirement on supplements.

But in the area of food safety, the nomination has been met with approval by consumer and public interest groups.

"We are supporting the appointment and we think it is a positive move in the right direction," said Rebecca Spector, West Coast director at the Center for Food Safety. "We have hopes that her [Hamburg's] background and commitment to precautionary principles and the fact that she did not come straight from the industry will help the FDA have a greater commitment to food safety."

Over the past two years, outbreaks including spinach and the recent peanut contamination have left citizens and public officials questioning the effectiveness of the FDA at protecting the food supply.

"No parent should have to worry that their child is going to get sick from their lunch," Obama said during the announcement.

"The FDA has not had the capacity to handle the food safety outbreaks and we haven't really seen the commitment or expertise within the agency to do so," Spector said. "The agency has been overburdened and under-funded and we hope that under the new administration more resources and attention will be dedicated to the food safety issue."

In addition to the nomination, Obama announced the creation of a Food Safety Working Group to govern food safety laws and advise the administration. While this will be part of the FDA, some groups have recommended creating a separate division for food safety.

"The FDA has been a broken agency for a long time," said Spector, "and that is one of the reasons we support dividing the FDA and taking food out."

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