Margaret Hamburg had her work cut out for her when President Obama named her Food and Drug Administration commissioner last year, and she wasted no time standing up to the job.
Following a wave of food recalls that had shaken the food industry, Hamburg stepped in as head of an agency that was “a bit fragmented,” she said, and whose communication lines were tangled.
In that atmosphere, Hamburg saw that the FDA needed some reorganizing, and, at the same time, she put food safety high on her priority list.
“Food safety and nutrition became my major focus from the very beginning,” Hamburg told SN.
“We hit the ground running and have been very active ever since, both from the standpoint of preventing contamination and adulteration of food, but also in putting a strong focus on nutrition.”
One of Hamburg’s first acts as commissioner was to create an Office of Food, to which she appointed a deputy commissioner of food, reporting directly to her.
“Having this office and a deputy with full responsibility and accountability gives new strength to our food safety efforts,” she said. “He has responsibility for alignment and coordination of food safety and nutrition programs and is the point person for other agencies and our external partners.”
The level of accountability is particularly important to her, Hamburg said, because previously there had been no single high-level official responsible for overseeing FDA’s various food safety efforts.
Hamburg, a physician with an extensive background in public health — having served as New York City commissioner of public health, and as an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — brings with her a perspective that puts big emphasis on prevention and that requires coordinating efforts of all stakeholders, right down to the local level.
“We need to be ahead of any potential crisis,” she said.
In that regard, Hamburg has implemented a new system with the aim of catching problems before the product gets to the grocery shelf. She made it clear she has the food retailers, as well as consumers, in mind when it comes to food safety.
“When there is a problem, it’s important to let the public know when it’s solved,” she said, “and that it is not every single item in a category that’s affected.”
In the face of criticism of some food/nutrition rating systems now in place, Hamburg has vowed to review nutrition labeling and to create a comprehensive system that includes front-of-pack
She also wants to find new ways to reach the public with nutrition information.
As part of that effort and others, she’s been working with Grocery Manufacturers Association, the Food Marketing Institute and individual companies to assess what is needed.
Industry sources had praise for Hamburg’s efforts.
“Dr. Hamburg maintains an ongoing dialogue with all the stakeholders and listens to what we have to say,” said Leslie G. Sarasin, FMI president and CEO. “She had demonstrated her interest in putting food on an equal footing with drugs within FDA, and it is very clear to me that she is truly committed to FDA’s responsibility for the safety of the food supply.”