WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration appointed a new "food safety czar" yesterday and directed him to develop a plan for addressing shortcomings exposed by recent scares in the human food supply.
Dr. David W.K. Acheson, a former University of Maryland medical school professor who had been chief medical officer at the Food and Drug Administration's food safety center, immediately stepped into the job.
The creation of the new position underscored the extent of public concern about food safety after a dangerous chemical linked to pet deaths edged closer to the nation's human food supply. Recent outbreaks of bacterial contamination in bagged spinach, Taco Bell lettuce and Peter Pan peanut butter also raised alarms. But Democrats said fears have intensified to a degree that a new appointment alone won't quell.
Acheson's first order of business will be to devise a strategy for addressing changes to the country's food supply, such as its increasing dependence upon imports from nations with varying degrees of safety vigilance.
"We've seen a rapid transformation of the food safety system due to advances in production technology, rapid methods of distribution and the globalization of food sources," FDA Commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach said in a statement. He said Acheson's experience and knowledge would help the FDA "keep pace" with the changes.
One thing Acheson said he wanted to take a look at is the agency's system for deciding which food to closely monitor. The FDA has enough inspectors to examine just 1 percent of imports, so it tries to determine the riskiest products worthy of inspectors' close attention.
But the tainted pet food ingredient wasn't among the high-risk products, prompting Acheson to say he would look at how the agency identifies risk. "We're in the process of re-examining that whole scenario," he said.
The appointment came just before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing on the challenges facing the FDA, including protecting the food supply, that was attended by three former agency commissioners.
Dr. David A. Kessler, FDA commissioner under former Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, called the food safety system "broken" and said the FDA needs to restore research and other efforts to prevent foodborne illness.
"The FDA can react to outbreaks, but the emphasis needs to be on preventing outbreaks before they happen," he said.
Von Eschenbach vowed to work with other agencies and countries to prevent future outbreaks, and he challenged Kessler's characterization. "Our food safety system in this country is not broken," he said.
Republicans and Democrats have taken turns recently questioning the capabilities of the country's food safety system. Several Democrats, who began proposing food safety legislation, dismissed the creation of a food safety czar as insufficient to fix the gaps exposed by the pet food scare.
"I don't think that's going to get the job done," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate. The FDA "needs additional resources - that is, more inspectors - and more legal authority."
Food safety rules
Durbin said he has requested as much additional funding as possible for the FDA. He said he was working with fellow senators sponsoring drug safety legislation to add provisions requiring states to adopt consistent food safety standards and penalizing companies that fail to promptly report food contamination.
The Illinois senator had been urging Congress to give the FDA authority to order companies to recall tainted products - now, companies must agree - but Durbin said he has dropped the demand for the time being to increase the chances that the Senate will enact some food safety improvements.
Acheson moved to the University of Maryland School of Medicine from Tufts University in 2001. He was an associate professor studying E. coli before transferring the next year to the FDA, according to the agency. Medical school faculty did not return calls seeking comment.
During a conference call with reporters updating the pet food contamination, Acheson, 51, declined to answer what was different about his new job. "The goal is to develop a strategic way of thinking, moving into the future, acknowledging there has been change," he said.
The scare has led to one of the largest recalls of pet food products, more than 150 brands. Melamine, a plastic derivative not approved for use in food, was first discovered in wheat gluten added to thicken dog and cat food. The chemical and related compounds have since turned up in feed for hogs and now poultry.
Investigators have linked melamine to the deaths of cats and dogs, although previous studies had not found the chemical toxic.
The melamine came from China. Investigators believe Chinese producers of wheat gluten laced it with melamine to boost the price. Inspectors are now stopping all wheat gluten imports from China.
Investigators had collected 750 samples as of Thursday, and 330 tested positive for melamine or related compounds so far, according to an FDA import alert, published on the agency Web site.
FDA investigators met with Chinese government officials and intend to visit Chinese factories that manufacture wheat gluten and other vegetable protein products added to foods. They are facing delays because it is a holiday in China, FDA officials said.
See the list of recalled pet food at baltimoresun.com/petfood
Dr. David W.K. Acheson
Education: University of London Medical School
Previous positions: Chief medical officer and director of the FDA's Office of Food Defense, Communication and Emergency Response
Associate professor, University of Maryland School of Medicine
Associate professor, Tufts University in Massachusetts