WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's choice to oversee food and drug safety pledged on Thursday to revamp protection of the nation's food supply to help prevent future disease outbreaks.
Dr. Margaret Hamburg, a bioterrorism expert who once served as New York City health commissioner, breezed through her confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, with no senators expressing opposition.
Hamburg, 53, said she wants to restore public confidence in the Food and Drug Administration by putting science first and running an open and accountable operation.
The Senate is expected to vote on her nomination within two weeks. If confirmed, Hamburg's most immediate task will be to oversee development of a vaccine for the new swine flu. She said food safety will be her major continuing project.
"The agency is facing a range of new and daunting challenges," Hamburg told senators. "These include the globalization of food and drug production, the emergence of new and complex medical technologies and the risk of adulteration or deliberate terror attacks on our food and drug supplies."
The FDA oversees products ranging from peanut butter to cancer drugs to medical imaging machines — a portfolio that represents about a quarter of consumer products. A few years ago, it was shaken by the withdrawal from the market of Vioxx, a painkiller that turned out to have serious heart risks. More recently, outbreaks of foodborne illness have exposed haphazard oversight of the nation's far-flung food supply chain. Within the agency, scientists in the medical devices center are in revolt over what they say is management interference. And a federal judge recently ruled that the FDA improperly politicized a decision on emergency birth control during the former Bush administration.
On top of all that, the FDA must play a critical role in developing a vaccine for the new swine flu virus and ensuring that enough vaccine can be made to protect the public.