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Hamburg: FDA needs bigger role

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said Sept. 8 that she wants to lead FDA to play a greater role in nutrition, as well as pushing food safety legislation through Congress.

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said Sept. 8 that she wants to lead FDA to play a greater role in nutrition, as well as pushing food safety legislation through Congress.

In a speech to the Food National Food Policy Conference sponsored by the Consumer Federation of America and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Hamburg said there was a "tower of babble" on food labels before the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act established the food content labeling program administered by the FDA and banned misleading claims. Hamburg said she recently has seen food labels making "claims that may not be true" and that she wants to "re-establish scientific standards for claims."

Hamburg did not say which product claims she distrusts, but greater scrutiny could have an effect on the labeling and advertising for many products that claim health benefits.

Better nutrition

Hamburg added that she is "following with interest" local laws that require chain restaurants to provide food content and caloric labeling and similar national bills introduced by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. Harkin's and DeLauro's bills would require chain restaurants with 20 or more business locations to provide consumers with information on calories, sodium, saturated and transfat and carbohydrates.

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Hamburg, a former head of the New York City Health Department, also said she is intrigued by voluntary efforts on the part of the food industry in New York City to lower sodium in packaged foods and foods served in restaurants. Too much sodium, she noted, leads to hypertension and strokes.

Hamburg also announced the establishment of a Reportable Food Safety Electronic Portal to which the food industry is required to alert the FDA quickly when their products might sicken or kill people or animals.

Under current law, FDA has the responsibility to mitigate food safety problems with foods under its jurisdiction when they occur, but Hamburg said the administration wants Congress to give the agency the authority to prevent food safety problems from occurring.

"As a nation we've been late in recognizing deficiencies of the food safety system," she said.

Hamburg said the FDA needs prompt access to records, mandatory recall authority and authority to hold importers accountable for managing the safety of imported foods. To improve food safety, Hamburg said the FDA also needs money.

She said she is "very happy the (House-passed food safety bill) has a fee-based revenue stream."

Hamburg said she is concerned about the "injudicious use" of antibiotics in raising farm animals and that she is examining what actions the agency can take administratively to reduce the farm use of antibiotics that are becoming less effective in humans. But in an interview, she added that "many of the long-term solutions must come through legislation."

House Rules Chairman Louise Slaughter has introduced a bill to restrict the use of some antibiotics. Maintaining the value of antibiotics, Hamburg said, "is one of the most pressing public health problems of our age."

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