Food safety czar tries not to mince words
The food safety czar at the Food and Drug Administration performs one ritual before his twice-weekly teleconferences with reporters, who sometimes snarl their questions about tainted animal foods: He eats.
“I have to be fueled up,” says David Acheson, a medical doctor whose title -- bestowed this month -- is assistant commissioner for food protection.
Acheson, a 4 1/2 -year FDA veteran, means to be honest and not ironic in sharing how he prepares for the sometimes contentious calls. They began two months ago, before the FDA created Acheson’s new job, after the recall of 60 million containers of pet food and reports of dog and cat illnesses and deaths.
As the public voice of government oversight during domestic food crises, the British-born Acheson no doubt wants to come across as honest.
Generally, he wins fair marks. “I think he’s a good scientist and a capable guy,” says William Hubbard, a former FDA associate commissioner who has been lobbying for increased funding for the agency. “The bigger question is not Acheson per se but the job and whether that job will work.”
The amiable Acheson, naturalized as a U.S. citizen two days after 9/11, says the agency’s needs are “three legs of a stool.”
The first is preventing problems, using science to point regulators to problem spots, and the second is a better system of inspection and detection, employing new technology.
The last is a robust response system for when the first two legs fail.
“We need to think outside the box right now on what our risk is,” Acheson says.
In the last four years, the FDA’s food-inspection responsibilities have increased more than 50% at the nation’s ports, with an estimated 9.1 million food “import lines,” or groups of items within a shipment, coming into the country this year. The agency inspects about 1% of food imports.
Acheson may be a fine food safety czar, “but David cannot run out to the ports and individually inspect every import shipment,” says Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The FDA’s problems are something “one person can’t solve.”
Acheson agrees with her point. “The agency has to have the resources,” he says. “I didn’t take this job on to write a report; I took this job on to make change.”
At medical school in London, Acheson trained in internal medicine and infectious diseases. Later, as a professor at the University of Maryland Medical School, he researched food-borne pathogens.
He joined the FDA in 2002 as the chief medical officer for the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition for that age-old reason: believing he could make a difference -- by finding a “broader solution that I could never achieve as a clinician or as an academic.”
That comes back to communication. Acheson says he tries to find a balance between informing and disseminating incomplete or inaccurate information. “The goal across the board is to be as transparent as we possibly can and to tell the public what we know and what we don’t.”
During an investigation, he says, some brand names can’t be given out and others shouldn’t be until their roles can be verified.
That’s one of the key tussles with activists and pet owners. As federal officials try to reassure the public that pet food is safe, critics say, the number of recalls and animals exposed to tainted products continues to rise.
In all, more than 150 brands and more than 5,000 different products have been affected by the recall. Millions of chickens, 56,000 swine and an undetermined number of fish may have eaten tainted feed.
Acheson has declined to name the hog and poultry farms affected by the contaminated feed, and he often doles out other names only after the companies have issued their own recalls.
A dedicated group of animal owners parses Acheson’s every public utterance. They scour the Internet for food safety documents and Acheson’s public testimony and then post them -- along with commentaries -- on websites and blogs.
“The tone of his remarks is more meant to reassure than to reform, to restore consumer confidence with words rather than with actions and facts and science,” says Christie Keith, a contributing editor for syndicated column Pet Connection and a blogger at PetConnection.com.
Adds Ken Cook, president of the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, which researches food safety issues: “They err on the side of calming people instead of saying, ‘We don’t know.’ ”
Acheson says he understands the frustration. The decision about what to release, he says, is never easy.
“I ask myself all the time, would I want to eat this product? Would I want my family to eat this product? And if the answer is no, I’m going to put all kinds of pressure to get that information out there.”
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On his plate
Education: University of London Medical School
Career highlights: FDA assistant commissioner for food protection; chief medical officer and director of the Office of Food Defense, Communication and Emergency Response at the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition; associate professor, University of Maryland Medical School, Baltimore; associate professor, Tufts University, Boston.
Personal: Born in Stoke-on-Trent, England. Lives in Maryland. Married and has a 22-year-old son in college studying business and two German shepherds. Hobbies include climbing and skiing.