In his weekly radio/video address today, President Obama addressed the issue of food safety andÂ announced the nomination of Margaret “Peggy” Hamburg as the Commissioner of the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). Dr. Hamburg is a former Health Commissioner of New York City and is known as an expert in bioterrorism. She is currently Senior Scientist at the Nuclear Threat Initiative and is Secretary of the Board of Directors at the Trust For America’s Health.Â Both are leading advocacy groups for improving emergency preparedness and awareness.
I had a chance to interview Dr. Hamburg about public preparedness in Washington last year. She said that “the public is key” to emergency readiness and response. She told me that governments need to more to educate citizens in advance on such bioterrorism questions as evacuation vs. ’shelter in place’. She also believes that making preparedness more personal and underscoring the role of the individual citizen is a more effective communications strategy in breaking through to the public. In fact, Hamburg mentioned that as a parent she approached her children’s school about its emergency plan which led to improvements in it.
In his address today, the President focused on preventing recent outbreaks that were responsibility of food making process –Â contaminated spinach in 2006, salmonella in 2008 and bad peanut products this year. But it will also be very helpful to have an knowledgeable, articulate expert in bioterrorism with experience both in local and national government in a major public health leadership position. Hamburg’s appointment underscores the important relationship between food safety, public health and emergency preparedness.
Â Â President Obama’s Weekly Address — March 14, 2009
In his remarks today, Obama said:Â
I’ve often said that I don’t believe government has the answer to every problem or that it can do all things for all people. We are a nation built on the strength of individual initiative. But there are certain things that we can’t do on our own. There are certain things only a government can do. And one of those things is ensuring that the foods we eat, and the medicines we take, are safe and don’t cause us harm. That is the mission of our Food and Drug Administration and it is a mission shared by our Department of Agriculture, and a variety of other agencies and offices at just about every level of government.
The men and women who inspect our foods and test the safety of our medicines are chemists and physicians, veterinarians and pharmacists. It is because of the work they do each and every day that the United States is one of the safest places in the world to buy groceries at a supermarket or pills at a drugstore. Unlike citizens of so many other countries, Americans can trust that there is a strong system in place to ensure that the medications we give our children will help them get better, not make them sick; and that a family dinner won’t end in a trip to the doctor’s office.
But in recent years, we’ve seen a number of problems with the food making its way to our kitchen tables. Â led to hundreds of illnesses and cost nine people their lives – a painful reminder of how tragic the consequences can be when food producers act irresponsibly and government is unable to do its job. Worse, these incidents reflect a troubling trend that’s seen the average number of outbreaks from contaminated produce and other foods grow to nearly 350 a year – up from 100 a year in the early 1990s.
Part of the reason is that many of the laws and regulations governing food safety in America have not been updated since they were written in the time of Teddy Roosevelt. It’s also because our system of inspection and enforcement is spread out so widely among so many people that it’s difficult for different parts of our government to share information, work together, and solve problems. And it’s also because the FDA has been underfunded and understaffed in recent years, leaving the agency with the resources to inspect just 7,000 of our 150,000 food processing plants and warehouses each year. That means roughly 95% of them go uninspected.
Obama said he is creating a Food Safety Working Group that will:
bring together cabinet secretaries and senior officials to advise me on how we can upgrade our food safety laws for the 21st century; foster coordination throughout government; and ensure that we are not just designing laws that will keep the American people safe, but enforcing them. And I expect this group to report back to me with recommendations as soon as possible.