With a vote of 89-4 today, the Senate confirmed Dr. Robert Califf as commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The Duke University professor has little experience in the food safety arena, but extensive experience as a cardiologist and researcher. Funding for some of that research came from big drug makers, including Eli Lily and Merck, which  led Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders to oppose Califf’s nomination.

Dr. Robert Califf, confirmed today as the new commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, was a featured speaker at an annual biomedicine conference at Stanford University in 2015.
Sanders, who is identified on the Senate roll call vote as an Independent, was one of seven senators who did not vote on Califf’s confirmation today. Republic presidential candidates Sen. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, like Sanders, were on the campaign trail and did not vote. Sens. Bob Corker, R-TN, Ron Johnson, R-WI, Claire McCaskill, D-MO, and Mark Warner, D-VA, also did not vote on the nomination. Voting against Califf were Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-NH, Richard Blumenthal, D-CT, Joe Manchin, D-WV, and Edward Markey, D-MA. Manchin and Markey mounted a campaign against Califf as head of the FDA citing frustration what they described as the agency’s lax approach to opioid painkiller abuse. Califf joined FDA in March 2015 as deputy commissioner for medical products and tobacco. He is known for leading many landmark clinical trials and is one of the most frequently cited authors in biomedical science, with more than 1,200 publications in the peer-reviewed literature. “I commend the Senate for their bipartisan vote today,” said Sylvia Burwell, U.S. Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, which is FDA’s parent agency. “Dr. Califf is the right person with the right experience to build on the FDA’s unsurpassed record of protecting public health while encouraging innovation and the introduction of new life-saving therapies to the market.” In her written statement Burwell gave a nod to Califf’s duties as the country’s top food cop. “I look forward to working with Dr. Califf to ensure the FDA can carry out every aspect of its critical mission; from ensuring the safety and effectiveness of the medical products we use, to protecting the nation’s food supply and implementing its oversight of tobacco products, to furthering our efforts to combat opioid abuse.” Califf succeeds Margaret Hamburg, who left her job as FDA commissioner in March 2015. Since her departure, FDA’s chief scientist Stephen Ostroff has been serving as acting commissioner. (To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)