FDA’s food safety czar Acheson off to consulting

David, we hardly knew ye.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s most public food safety face since the 2006 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in spinach, assistant commissioner for foods and barfblog.com fan, David Acheson (right, exactly as shown), is leaving to join a new consulting firm, headed by former Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt.

Jane Zhang of the Wall Street Journal reported today that Acheson said, in an email to FDA employees,

“I wanted to let you know that Friday, July 31st will be my final day of service at the FDA. I have accepted a position with Leavitt Partners, a consulting firm, who are starting a new focus on food and import safety and have asked me to head the new activity.”

The firm, based in Salt Lake City, where Leavitt served as governor, already has hired a number of former HHS officials, including Medicaid chief Dennis Smith.

Acheson said in an interview he will remain in Washington and will use his “strong public-health perspective” to help food companies address food safety issues.

Acheson spoke in a July 2007 interview with the Washington Post about his passion for public education and his commitment to making the wobbly global food-safety system work better — even though he’s acutely aware that, in his new position, a food-related outbreak has as much potential to break his career as to make it.

Obama moves on food safety: will it mean fewer sick people?

Reuters is reporting this morning ahead of a press conference later today by recently formed supergroup, the Food Safety Working Group (right, not exactly as shown), that the Obama administration is ordering tougher steps to curb salmonella and E.coli contamination in U.S. food processing plants and created a new deputy food commissioner post to coordinate safety.

In response to the working group recommendations, the administration created a new position — deputy commissioner for foods — at the Food and Drug Administration to increase coordination of food safety activities in different parts of the federal government.

Other highlights include:

• the FDA has issued a rule aimed at reducing salmonella contamination of eggs during production;

• the administration directed the Food Safety and Inspection Service to develop standards by the end of the year to reduce salmonella in turkey and poultry;

• to reduce E.coli contamination of beef, the FSIS was directed to improve surveillance and testing for the bacteria in plants that handle beef, especially ground beef; and,

• the administration said the FDA would issue new guidance to the industry by the end of the month in an effort to reduce E.coli contamination in tomatoes, melons and green leafy vegetables.

Scott Faber of the Grocery Manufacturers Association said the absence of a federal standard for commodities like leafy greens, tomatoes and melons was the "biggest hole in the current food safety net" and the proposal to issue guidance "is the single most important step that we can take to reduce the risk of foodborne contamination."

Yes, fresh produce is the biggest hole – although all the processing-related outbreaks of late suggest a fairly big hole – but FDA has been issuing guidance for growing safe, fresh produce for 10 years. Does anyone follow it? Will more guidance mean fewer sick people? Doubtful.

As I wrote when the supergroup, Food Safety Working Group, announced its inaugural tour back in March, ??????U.S. President Obama is excellent at setting tone, and maybe that’s the best that can be expected. At least food safety is on the White House agenda. Maybe it will send a message that everyone, from farm-to-fork, needs to get super-serious about providing microbiologically safe food. Maybe that will increase the safety of the food supply and result in fewer sick people. Maybe there will be a hit single to be found in the Working Group’s first release.

Acheson writes: FDA plans bold safety effort for food safety

David Acheson M.D., associate commissioner for foods with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in Silver Spring, Md., (right, pretty much exactly as shown) took to the letters page of The Contra Costa Times this morning to say,

“… we recognize that recent problems in food safety represent a clear need for change and a modernization in approach.

That’s why we’re working more closely with state and local officials to quickly respond to food-borne dangers, such as the recent problems with contaminated pistachios.

The FDA is increasing the number of audits of state inspection programs. Looking forward, the agency is developing a bold new approach that will support states as full partners, not as contractors.

President Barack Obama’s budget request for this year includes historic increases for food safety. As a lead participant of the President’s Food Safety Working Group, the FDA’s focus is on the development of a new national system focused on prevention.”

FDA chief lauds food safety bill as the ‘right direction’

In her first appearance before Congress as commissioner, Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (below, right) told the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health that a safety overhaul sponsored by several leading Democrats was “a major step in the right direction,” but that her agency would need more money to carry it out."

The New York Times reports
that legislation, still in draft, blends provisions from bills offered by several top Democrats and includes requirements that all food manufacturers write and carry out safety plans, pay an annual registration fee of $1,000 to the F.D.A. and keep track of the distribution of all food products.

The agency would be required to inspect every food facility in the country at least once every four years, with high-risk ones being inspected every 18 months.

Despite her support for the legislation, Dr. Hamburg said the registration fees “will, sadly, not be enough to implement those targets.”

Pamela G. Bailey, president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, in what appeared to be some kind of Orwellian-speak, told the committee,

“Our industry is ultimately responsible for the safety of its products,” Ms. Bailey said in a written statement, “but securing the safety of the food supply is a government function which should be largely financed with government resources.”

F.D.A. details its food safety campaign

Andrew Martin of the N.Y. Times has just reported on-line and in tomorrow’s print editions that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will release a report Monday that summarizes what officials call a “hugely ambitious” campaign to reshape its food inspection arm to root out safety hazards through things like sophisticated software and certifiers from the private sector.

“The goal is to radically redesign the process,” said Dr. David Acheson
(right, exactly as shown), the agency’s associate commissioner for foods. For imported food, for instance, that means trying to detect tainted products during the production process rather than waiting until they enter the country.

“We cannot simply rely on picking the ball up at the point of entry,” Dr. Acheson said.

The changes were first outlined in the agency’s Food Protection Plan, which was released in November 2007. In June, the agency was criticized by the Government Accountability Office for failing to provide details on the costs or specific strategies for carrying out the plan. Some lawmakers have repeatedly called the agency’s food protection efforts inadequate.

Governments can only do so much, and auditors or other third-party certifiers have been sorta miserable – a lot of foodborne illness outbreaks are linked back to farms, processors and retailers that went through some form of certification. What’s needed are the proper mixture of carrots and sticks to foster a food safety culture at all points of the farm-to-fork food safety system. My friend, Frank, wrote a new book about food safety culture. But more about that tomorrow, or in a few days, depending on when this baby decides to arrive.