The following editorial appeared in the Charlotte Observer on Tuesday, March 17:

President Obama’s proposed changes to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration couldn’t come a moment too soon. The nation’s food and drug safety system is badly broken. And as a consequence, the health and welfare of U.S. residents are constantly at risk.

The announced changes are solid first steps. In particular, the president’s choice for FDA commissioner is getting high marks. Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, a former New York City health commissioner, is lauded for her expertise and extensive experience in health policy and regulations. She has been credited with developing effective programs to control tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS in New York.

Obama isn’t leaving it to Hamburg to outline his intentions though. On Saturday, he pointedly described the government’s failings in curbing food and drug contamination problems and called for more inspectors and better coordination among agencies. He’s forming a Food Safety Working Group to upgrade our food safety laws for the 21st century. That group will include the secretaries of health and agriculture. It will advise him on which laws and regulations need to be changed, to foster coordination across federal agencies, and to ensure laws are enforced. He also said he will ask Congress for money to add inspectors and to modernize laboratories.

Those moves are needed. Both the lack of inspectors and the failure to follow laws have played roles in recent problems that have resulted in deaths and injuries. Last month in a Raleigh, N.C., courtroom, prosecutors detailed a horrific case of tainted drugs in the marketplace. Hundreds of people were sickened and at least five died, and it all began in a pharmaceutical plant in Angier, N.C. The company didn’t follow sterility rules and got away with it because the FDA wasn’t diligent. The lack of oversight and adequate inspections were also factors in a salmonella outbreak traced to peanut products from a Georgia plant that killed nine. Those incidents and others, Obama noted, are “a painful reminder of how tragic the consequences can be when food producers act irresponsibly and government is unable to do its job.” Two issues the FDA can and should move quickly on: The agency should have the power to order product recalls when there is evidence of danger, rather than waiting on manufacturers to issue voluntary recalls.

And it should have standard guidelines for inspectors – and not rely on differing guidelines that come with inspections conducted by states. As the president notes, “there are certain things only a government can do. And one of those things is ensuring that the foods we eat, and the medicines we take, are safe and do not cause us harm.” It’s time the government did its job.

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