A Conversation with Food Safety Czar David W.K. Acheson

A exclusive conversation with ‘food safety czar’ David W.K. Acheson, FDA’s Associate Commissioner for Foods.

By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

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FP: When you became a physician, did you have any inkling you would become the U.S. Food Safety Czar – how did it happen?

DA: It evolved. I started as a physician in England initially in internal medicine and specializing in infectious diseases. I always had an interest in research, and many of my patients had foodborne illness. In the late 1980s, I had an opportunity to come to Tufts University to focus on the science of e-coli. I became enthralled and fascinated with that, and decided to continue living and working in Boston to focus entirely on and understand the molecular pathogenesis of E-coli 157. I did that until 2002, when I took it to the public health arena with a position at FDA.  One thing built on another – about 10 years as a physician doing infectious diseases and understanding the disease process and clinic illness, then getting into how do these bugs work and make you sick on a fundamental molecular level, and then putting the two together to fix the problems. It’s a big challenge, but a heck of a lot of fun. Calling it a heck of a lot of fun trivializes food safety and people getting sick; what I enjoy is the intellectual stimulation of solving complex issues. It’s long hours, late nights, working through weekends, it never stops, so it is a passion. I very much enjoy what I do; it has huge challenges; we get regularly beaten up for not doing it well enough or fast enough.

I enjoy these opportunities to sit down one-on-one with the media to help people understand what makes me tick and the challenges and complexities we face. It helps get the word out that the FDA has a human side, we are consumers, have families and we do care. We are not just faceless bureaucrats pulling a salary and working as few hours as possible.

FP: What are the issues keeping you up at night?

DA: Food safety. How do we make the system work better and integrate complex systems within FDA, which is why the Commissioner created my position. The Food Protection Plan we put together is a piece of paper with a bunch of words. It’s not until we drive that down to specific deliverable action items that makes change that will have made a difference. Other than that, it’s all talk. That’s what keeps me up at night. How do we take that strategic vision, which I think is a good one, and drive it down to real change and difference? And how can we improve consumer confidence and food safety, while recognizing that we will never solve it all? 

FP: In only one year on the job, what is your greatest accomplishment?

DA: I still have a job. Seriously, it’s getting out the Food Protection Plan as a written document with new legislative proposals in six months. That’s a big deal. To actually identify 10 areas where we at FDA believe we need new authority; we don’t do a lot of that. And we’ve laid it out in the context of this strategic vision of Prevention, Intervention and Response. Even our critics have said this plan is good and solid. That was probably the highlight of the first year. I think the second highlight is the recognition that FDA needs more money for food safety, and hopefully more money will be forthcoming. Without that, this plan will not be implemented. We’ve had small successes as well – strategies to try and build the FDA beyond our borders. In November we need to get the specific implementation pieces of the Food Protection Plan better articulated. It’s been a huge challenge to build a plan ensuring the safety of 80 percent of the food supply for 300 million Americans. That’s the challenge, but it isn’t something you can do in a few months.

For a downloadable copy of the Food Protection Plan go to http://www.fda.gov/oc/initiatives/advance/food/plan.html






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