WASHINGTON — Building safeguards into every step of the production and distribution process as well as working with industry to educate the public about nutrition are a few of the steps expected to restore credibility at the Food and Drug Administration, the agency’s new chiefs wrote in a May 26 on-line article for The New England Journal of Medicine.
Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the F.D.A., and Joshua Sharfstein, principal deputy commissioner, laid out an extensive look at the challenges facing the F.D.A. in a "perspective" piece titled "The F.D.A. as a Public Health Agency."
A top priority for the F.D.A. will be food safety, an area that has garnered attention in recent years due to outbreaks of Salmonella.
Ms. Hamburg and Mr. Sharfstein said a public health approach to food safety starts with the use of data to identify the riskiest parts "of an enormous and complex system."
"The F.D.A. should partner with the Department of Agriculture and other federal agencies, states and other authorities to establish a modern food-safety system focused on prevention of contamination," they wrote. "Working with Congress to modernize food safety laws, the F.D.A. must strive to build safeguards into every step of the production and distribution process."
In making their case, the two commissioners noted the Salmonella outbreak linked to contaminated peanut butter represented "far more than a sanitation problem at one troubled facility. It reflected a failure of the F.D.A. and its regulatory partners to identify risk and to establish and enforce basic preventive controls. And it exposed the failure of scores of food manufacturers to adequately monitor the safety of ingredients purchased from this facility."
Another key priority for the F.D.A. under the watch of Ms. Hamburg and Mr. Sharfstein will be progress in nutrition.
"A laissez-faire approach to nutritional claims can lead to more confusion than understanding," they wrote. "Working with industry and others, the F.D.A. can support efforts to educate the public about nutrition and promote more healthful foods."
The commissioners said the F.D.A. also should play an active role in facilitating the development of safety standards. Doing so will require working with international partners and building a system with multiple levels of oversight, they added.
"Safety must be the shared responsibility of not only the producer but also the country of origin, the importer, the importing country, and the final company in the supply chain," they wrote. "Some elements of this system, such as international outreach and coordination, can be implemented quickly; others will take years to develop. Along the way, new challenges are likely to arise. As they do, the F.D.A. must respond forcefully and provide timely and credible information to the public."
Regardless of the area of focus, Ms. Hamburg and Mr. Sharfstein stressed the importance of carrying out the new duties of the F.D.A. in a manner that promotes public trust of the agency.
"Establishing the F.D.A. as a public health agency requires a culture that encourages scientific exchange and respects alternative viewpoints along the path of decision making," they wrote. "It also requires that the agency define and protect integrity in its basic processes."
The full article may be accessed at content.nejm.org.