FDA Pick Spent Life 'Preparing For This Job'
JACKI LYDEN, host:
Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden. President Obama today named his choice to head the Food and Drug Administration. He said he made the choice because of his concern about the lack of inspection in America's food supply.
President BARACK OBAMA: That's a hazard to public health. It's unacceptable, and it will change under the leadership of Dr. Margaret Hamburg.
LYDEN: NPR's Joanne Silberner reports on Margaret Hamburg's qualifications to lead the Food and Drug Administration.
JOANNE SILBERNER: If Margaret Hamburg wins Senate confirmation, she'd be taking charge of an agency in trouble, says William Hubbard. For 13 years before retiring, he was the policy chief at the FDA.
Mr. WILLIAM HUBBARD (Former Policy Chief, United States Food and Drug Administration): I think the president's remarks are a reflection of the dire concerns many in Congress and among the public have about our food safety system, that there's just a concern that FDA can't protect us from unsafe food.
SILBERNER: And there are concerns that the agency has been approving drugs too rapidly and not monitoring them well once they're on the market. There are questions about products from cloned animals, and the use of antibiotics in farm animals.
Meanwhile, Congress is considering taking food safety away from the FDA and creating a whole new agency. At the same time, it's considering whether to give the FDA an active role in regulating tobacco.
But Hubbard says Hamburg's experiences as New York City health commissioner, among other things, means she can handle this.
Mr. HUBBARD: You could argue she has spent her life preparing for a job like this by being a public health official. She has the skill, the experience, the commitment to public health that's probably perfect for this sort of challenge.
SILBERNER: Former FDA commissioner Donald Kennedy has known Margaret Hamburg since she was a child. Kennedy and Hamburg's parents were all professors at Stanford University. He's watched as Hamburg, now 53 years old, made her way through the world.
Mr. DONALD KENNEDY (Former Commissioner, United States Food and Drug Administration): I would characterize her in two ways: being very, very smart and thoughtful, and also calm.
Mr. KENNEDY: When she's facing a complicated situation, she has a great sense of being unbothered, being cool. She's a lot like Obama himself in that respect, I think.
SILBERNER: Hamburg has faced some challenging situations in her career, especially during those six years in the 1990s, when she was New York City health commissioner. There was a tuberculosis epidemic. Hamburg instituted an aggressive program to find people with TB and make sure they took their medications.
She's not talking to the media at the moment, as is the practice of most appointees awaiting Senate confirmation, but at the time of the TB epidemic, she said this:
Dr. MARGARET HAMBURG (Nominee, FDA Commissioner): We do have individuals who have been repeatedly noncompliant, and that's why we feel we also, as public-health officials, have to have the power to take more aggressive action in those cases so that we can protect the health of the public.
SILBERNER: As commissioner, she convinced the New York City mayor to let her give clean needles to drug addicts to help stem the AIDS epidemic, an action supported by research but not popular politically. And she had the unique experience of having her own signature show up twice on her two children's birth certificates, once as mother and once as health commissioner.
Hamburg has been a medical researcher. She's worked on policy issues at the Federal Department of Health and Human Services. Most recently, she's been working on bioterrorism issues at a think tank.
Hamburg will have to step down as a member of the board of a company that sells medical products and generic drugs but so far, no red flags. In fact, it's hard to find anyone who is not enthusiastic about Obama's choice.
The prescription drug manufacturers' trade group didn't have anyone available to talk about Dr. Hamburg, but they did issue a statement saying they applaud the selection. Joanne Silberner, NPR News, Washington.
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