WASHINGTON, Feb. 5, 2015 – Margaret Hamburg, who has run the Food and Drug Administration since 2009, is stepping down with a number of key food safety and nutrition issues still to be resolved.

However, the impact of her departure on those issues is likely to be limited because Hamburg created a deputy commissioner position filled by Michael Taylor, the agency’s point on food regulation.

In aletter to her staff Thursday morning announcing her plans, the FDA commissioner highlighted the agency’s work to create a “modernized food safety system that will reduce foodborne illness.”

During Hamburg’s tenure, the agency has wrestled with implementing a series of sweeping rules needed to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which significantly strengthened FDA’s authority to regulate the food supply.

Hamburg was unable to persuade Congress to implement a series of industry user fees to pay for the increased oversight and inspection that will be required under the rules.

The agency also has moved to phase out trans fats in the food supply, proposed revisions to the nutrition labels on foods, finalized menu labeling requirements for restaurants and pursued a voluntary strategy to reduce the use of medically important antibiotics in animal agriculture. FDA also has stuck to a longstanding policy that there is no legal basis for requiring labeling of genetically engineered foods

In a statement, the president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Pamela Bailey, praised Hamburg for her work on FSMA. “She was an activist commissioner in the best sense of the term: personally engaged in the important issues and always seeking the views of all stakeholders,” Bailey said.

Because of Taylor’s role at FDA, Hamburg’s departure should have “minimal impact” on its food safety work, said Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Food and Water Watch, a consumer advocacy group. “The agency is under a court order to complete implementation of the pending FSMA rules within certain timeframes, so that process will continue unless the Congress decides to overturn the court mandates,” Corbo said.

FDA has regulatory authority over most foods other than meat and poultry.

During Hamburg's watch, the agency's Office of Criminal Investigations has also pushed for criminal prosecution of several business executives or farm owners whose products, including  have been linked to deadly outbreaks, said Bill Marler, an attorney who specializes in suing companies involved in foodborne illnesses. "Twenty years ago, 15 years ago, 10 years ago, they never did any of these" prosecutions, he said.
In her staff letter, Hamburg said the agency had “a strong commitment to science as the foundation” of its regulatory decisions.

“In the foods area, we have taken critical actions that will improve the safety of the food Americans consume for years to come,” she wrote. “These include science-based standards developed to create a food safety system focused on preventing foodborne illness before it occurs, rather than responding after the fact. 

“We have taken several significant steps to help Americans make more informed and healthful food choices.These include working to reduce trans fats in processed foods; more clearly defining when baked goods, pastas and other foods can be labeled “gluten free;” updating the iconic Nutrition Facts label; and, most recently, finalizing the rules to make calorie information available on chain restaurant menus and vending machines.”