PART I: On agency turf battles, the shift between the Bush and Obama administrations, and the politics of regulating the food supply: A conversation with Dr. David Acheson, former Associate Commissioner of Foods at the FDA.

Dr. David Acheson knows the federal food safety system inside and out. An expert in food safety and infectious diseases who has become well-versed in regulatory policy, Acheson understands the science and the politics behind how the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) works.

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In 2002, Acheson became the Chief Medical Officer at the FDA’s Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) and served in several different leadership capacities before eventually becoming the Associate Commissioner of Foods in 2008. 

Acheson–‘your stomach’s best friend,’ according to the Washington Post–played a critical role in creating the 2007 Food Protection and Import Safety Action Plans, both of which proved to be important first steps in the agency’s response to a string of high-profile food recalls, ranging from E. coli in spinach to melamine-tainted pet food.

Last summer Acheson transitioned to the private sector to work for Leavitt Partners, a consulting firm founded by former U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Michael O. Leavitt, where he continues to work on food and import safety issues.

Food Safety News had a chance to chat with Acheson about how the FDA’s food safety system works, where it can be improved, and on whether the pending food safety legislation can cure the agency’s woes.

Q: When you began working at the FDA, did anything surprise you about the agency? 

A: I think what surprised me the most was its lack of cohesiveness. It is very complex. Back in those days–and I don’t really think its changed–there were areas of competitiveness in food issues, over who had control of what food issue, as opposed to the agency saying, yeah we need to treat food across the board as a common problem and we need to roll up our sleeves and solve it. Now, that’s just a philosophy within FDA that needs to be changed.

I was a little surprised when I got there that it was so evident. It got progressively better and I like to think that I had a significant part in building cohesion as I gained seniority. There was very clearly a competitive edge between the Center for Food Safety and Nutrition and the Office of Regulatory Affairs with regard to foods. There was not a good working relationship between the two.

I decided that one of my goals was to make that a more functional relationship. I think we were pretty successful at it in recent years. 

Interestingly, one of the areas that provided the initial and greatest success was with regard to food defense. Post 9/11, it was the point at which the initial reaction had occurred to terrorism in foods and it was like, OK, how do we get the industry to understand where their risks are and get them to step up to the plate?

There was very little, if any, regulation in those days. So it was more done by persuasion and education than it was by regulation, and the turf battles weren’t there within FDA. It was the perfect opportunity to build relationships between the various parts of the agency, and we had a lot of success in that.

I used that model in the last two or three years I was there as the lead for food safety in the office of the commissioner. We made some progress, but, you know, you do run into the political hurdles, the political roadblocks of trying to make regulatory change.

Q: You worked under both the Bush and Obama administrations; did you notice a big shift in attitude or approach? Was the leadership change significant?

A: It was an interesting evolution. 

There was recognition that the foods side of FDA needed some serious attention, and [Commissioner von Eschenbach] understood that. Then in early 2007, when we had a couple of fairly major episodes, the first of which was the peanut butter outbreak from ConAgra, which was the first time that peanut butter had really surfaced.  And people were asking, boy how did that happen? What is going on with the food system?

Fairly soon after that, we had the first episode of melamine in wheat gluten and in pet foods. It was really in that period that von Eschenbach said, we have really got to pay attention to this.

My perception was that in the latter part of the previous administration, there was very clear recognition that foods needed some serious help and attention and support–that drove the food protection plan, it drove, in that plan, a request for 10 new legislative authorities.

Which, for an administration that was not particularly excited about new legislation, was a fairly big step. It was during that process that I interacted directly with the secretary of HHS, secretary Mike Leavitt, talking to him in pretty straightforward terms, saying “we’ve got to do this, we’ve got to require prevention controls, particularly for the high risk foods,” he got that, he understood that. We then were able to put out the food protection plan, in which we said the FDA needs new authority. At the same time the administration was also saying the FDA needs more money.

Initially when I started doing the high profile work, there were two things we couldn’t talk about–it was ‘don’t ask for more money, and don’t ask for more authority.’ Well, I was saying internally: ‘we need both.’ Politically you just couldn’t do it. But the administration came around. 

I think what we then saw, with the change of administration, was a group who came in looking at the history of the last four or five years, which was one significant outbreak after another.

The political perspective was, well clearly those guys that preceded us didn’t know what they were doing, we know what we’re doing and we’re going to fix it. 

I wish I could believe that it was as simple as that. It is just not as simple as that. It is much more fundamental.

What the new administration did was to say we need to maintain foods as a higher profile issue, we need to actually increase the profile of foods, which they did, more so than the Bush administration, which was good. They also wanted to restructure things within FDA to some extent to address the lack of connectivity.

So did I see a shift? Yeah, a little bit. Was the trend already under way with the previous administration? Absolutely. The recognition of the need for new regulation… and if you go back and look at the food protection plan and the ten legislative proposals that were in there and compare them with what is in the House bill and the Senate bill, they are not that different, fundamentally. 

See tomorrow’s edition of Food Safety News for more of our conversation with David Acheson–we’ll be covering the pending food safety reform legislation, the impact on small producers, and the importance of traceability in PART II.

Photo courtesy of Leavitt Partners.