Just eight weeks into the job, she addressed an audience of food and drug lawyers last week, detailing tough new measures to stem the flow of tainted products from a tiny minority of neglectful manufacturers into consumers’ homes.
In answer to reporters’ questions, she said that it could be her “naïveté” that gets the ball rolling on reform. But don’t be fooled: Hamburg is a formidable woman, and while she may admit that there is “a lot more” to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) than she had expected, she certainly knows how to get things done. Remember, this is the woman credited with staunching the spread of tuberculosis as New York City’s health commissioner.
Now as she turns her hand to the startling state of the nation’s food safety system, let’s hope she can have a similar impact.
Among the new measures, she has promised to tighten the timeframe that companies have to clean up their facilities if food safety violations are found, and for the FDA to move “swiftly and aggressively” if inspections reveal significant public health hazards.
An aggressive response is certainly needed: The incidence of foodborne illness has more than tripled since the early nineties, and it now kills more than 5,000 Americans every year.
Besides, while the Food Safety Enhancement Act is stuck between the House – where it passed last week – and the Senate, which won’t meet again until September, Hamburg says that the new measures can be enacted under current legislation.
There will most likely be those in the US who are resistant to more robust federal action. After all, this is a country that has huge faith in individual responsibility and an industry that has long enjoyed relative freedom to look after its own interests. Who would risk their company’s reputation by selling contaminated products?
However it seems that industry has begun to realize that sometimes the ideal of blanket individual responsibility does fail. It only takes one Peanut Corporation of America to prompt the largest product recall in history, sicken hundreds, and bring an industry to its knees.
The irony of the FDA shake-up is that it is a response prompted by a rash of outbreaks that culminated in the peanut-salmonella scandal – but it may finally signal a move away from a food safety system that has too often been reactive to one that has the weight to focus on outbreak prevention.
Tougher action against those that violate FDA regulations is reason for some to beware. But for the vast majority of companies, Hamburg’s vow to subject errant parts of the industry to swifter action should be welcomed as a way to restore failing consumer confidence in the food supply. As long as the agency upholds its part of the deal, to be transparent in its expectations, industry has nothing to fear and much to gain.
Caroline Scott-Thomas is a journalist specializing in the food industry. Prior to completing a Masters degree in journalism at Edinburgh's Napier University, she had spent five years working as a chef. If you would like to comment on this article, contact caroline.scott-thomas 'at' decisionnews.com.