Calling it "a critical time" for food safety, the Food and Drug Administration's new chief said Tuesday she plans to strengthen steps to prevent contamination of fresh fruit and vegetables.
Dr. Margaret Hamburg said the FDA must set and enforce tougher standards for the riskiest products — and a string of recent outbreaks linked to spinach, lettuce, tomatoes and peppers put fresh produce atop her list as she takes over the embattled agency.
"We are focusing not on keeping a tally of how many inspections we do or how many drugs we approve but how do we make a difference in people's lives," Hamburg said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Food safety is one such area, and "it's a critical time in the recognition that there is a problem," she said. "The number of recent outbreaks have underscored for the public and policymakers that things need to change."
Critics say FDA too cozy with industry
The FDA, the nation's chief consumer protection agency, has struggled for years to keep up with increasing responsibilities to oversee the nation's ever-more-complex health industries as well as food, without a budget sufficient to do the job. Its own scientists have charged that their safety concerns were dismissed by leaders too cozy with industry.
Hamburg arrived three weeks ago vowing to restore the FDA's credibility by focusing on science-based decisions that shore up public health. Tuesday, she put food safety at the top of the list. The FDA has asked Congress for a nearly 20 percent funding increase and new industry user fees to pay for more inspections.
But Hamburg said there are too many food suppliers here and around the world for the FDA to physically inspect every one. Her goal is to focus on the riskiest foods and implement prevention strategies — what scientists call risk-based controls — to target the spots along the farm-to-store chain where contamination can occur.
FDA also needs to use 21st century technology to help speed approval of new drugs, monitor for the earliest signs of side effects once medications hit the market — and take a hard look at the safety of emerging science like nanotechnology that is being used in a broad array of products.
"It's in cosmetics, drug delivery, things I never would have imagined, like clothing," Hamburg said. "We need to understand more about that emerging technology and how to evaluate it."