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His latest challenge: Keeping our food supply safe

In mid-March, 60 million cans and pouches of pet food were found to be tainted with melamine, a chemical used in fertilizer and plastics. The contamination was linked to wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate imported from China, and it triggered one of the largest pet food recalls ever. Globe staffer Diedtra Henderson spoke with Dr. David W.K. Acheson , the Food and Drug Administration's newly named assistant commissioner for food protection, about food safety matters.

Q You've got a tough assignment: securing the food supply as safety questions loom about pet food and feed for cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry, and farm-raised fish and shrimp. Why take that job now?

A I love a challenge. I believe I can make a difference. I think that my background -- about 10 years as a practicing physician, specializing in infectious diseases, followed by 12 to 15 years of basic molecular research on food-borne pathogens, followed by four years in the federal government focused on public health issues -- has allowed me to gain perspectives on what is important for protecting public health.

Q Critics are tough. One editorial calls food safety laws toothless, FDA staff overworked, and inspection regimens dominated by industry. True?

A I can't specifically say whether that's true or not true. There is recognition that there is a need for some change. There are a lot of very dedicated people in the FDA who are doing the best with the resources that they have, and the authorities that they have, to maximally protect public health.

We are a reactive agency. We need to continue to do that. We need to do it faster. But we've got to shift this. We're the fire department that's gone in there once the fire has broken out. We need to be putting smoke detectors in places and figuring out whether the wiring is old and fixing those things to prevent the fires.

Q Give an example of how a prevention focus changes FDA actions.

A How do you prevent E. coli 0157:H7 from getting on spinach? That's the bug that caused the spinach outbreak. You need to do the basic science to understand how that contamination can occur. How do you prevent it? Do you test the water on a regular basis? Do you push cattle further away? Do you need better washing strategies in the processing plants? You then educate industry on how to do that. And then, potentially down the road, verify they are doing it.

Q Is that happening now?

A No, it's not. But it's where we need to go.

Q In addition to rejecting food exports from China, the FDA often rejects food from India. Which exporting countries concern the FDA most?

A I've never done a systematic study trying to rank a country, by country of concern. China clearly is an example of where you have got a very rapidly growing and changing economy and social infrastructure . . . a rapidly increasing export market from China. One has to ask, how well has the regulatory food safety infrastructure kept up with this growth?

Q Are certain imported products more concerning?

A Oh sure. Products that are not cooked or otherwise treated by what we euphemistically call a "kill step" for bacteria are ones of greater concern. In the context of imported foods, people raise concerns about use of pesticides and chemicals and antibiotics, and other things that are not approved in the United States.

Q Critics make the case for a single food safety agency with recall authority and a mandate to standardize inspections.

A Simply creating a single food safety agency, moving groups of federal employees around under a different organizational structure, frankly, I think is more likely to create a bigger hole in food safety, certainly for sure in the short term. I worry about that.

Q The agency inspects roughly 1 percent of the $60 billion in imported food. How much more does the FDA need for inspectors?

A I do not believe that simply doubling, tripling, increasing by a factor of 10 the number of inspectors is going to solve the problem. One has to build this into a comprehensive preventative strategy, working with industry to help them understand what preventative controls work the best. You then need to potentially verify that they're doing that. You then need inspectors in the system for the intervention part: to inspect foods, maybe after they've been produced, somewhere during their life before they reach retail . . . Looking to prevent the problem from ever arriving on somebody's dinner plate.

If we are going to move the food safety and security system forward, we are going to need to address this with new resources and, potentially, new authorities. The changes are real. There is a limit to what you can accomplish with the resources that we currently have.

Q Is mandatory recall authority among new powers the FDA seeks?

A It's on the table as an authority that could be looked at.

Q Which other new powers would be helpful?

A [We're] looking at what the strategic plan, overall, would shape up like. What could be achieved with current authorities? What could be achieved with what you might call a tweak on current authorities? And what needs new authorities? There needs to be overall buy-in to the strategic approach . . . I don't want to jeopardize anything or preempt anything by jumping too far in front.