January 30, 2009 / 7:53 PM / 11 years ago

UPDATE 2-Obama's US FDA pick to come within days -spokesman

(New throughout)

By Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON, Jan 30 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will announce in coming days his pick to lead the struggling Food and Drug Administration with the aim of strengthening the agency’s regulatory muscle, the White House said on Friday.

The news comes amid a recall of hundreds of products tied to salmonella bacteria-tainted peanuts that have sickened more than 500 people in at least 43 states, including numerous children, and possibly led to eight deaths.

“The president hopes in the next few days to announce a pick for commissioner at FDA,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told a press briefing.

Companies and consumer advocates have been anxious for Obama to name the next leader at the agency, which regulates roughly a quarter of the nation’s products, including pharmaceuticals, medical devices and dietary supplements.

Names floated for the post include Joshua Sharfstein, head of Baltimore’s health department; Robert Califf, cardiologist at Duke University; Cleveland Clinic cardiologist Steve Nissen; and Susan Wood, former head of the FDA’s Office of Women’s Health.

Whoever takes over will find an agency juggling a variety of challenges, including the latest salmonella scare. The FDA and Department of Justice officials have launched a probe of the outbreak, which has been traced back to Blakely, Georgia.-based Peanut Corp of America. [ID:nN30467540]

“I think the revelations have no doubt been alarming,” Gibbs said. “Whether it was our own regulatory system or a company that repeatedly found salmonella in its own testing (and) would continue to ship out that product is beyond disturbing for millions of parents.”

He said the president hoped to implement “a stricter regulatory structure” that would avoid such outbreaks in the future, but he offered no other details.

The FDA suffered a series of setbacks under former Republican President George W. Bush, who did not have a permanent commissioner in place for more than half of his tenure. FDA officials have also said they lacked enough funding and staff from Congress.

Problems included Merck & Co Inc’s (MRK.N) recalled painkiller Vioxx, a suicide risk with antidepressants and contamination of Baxter International Inc’s (BAX.N) blood-thinning drug heparin.

The FDA also faced a rash of tainted foods and other products, including spinach, pet food and toothpaste.

Obama’s choice must be confirmed by the Democratic-led U.S. Senate, which has yet to confirm the Department of Health and Human Services nominee Tom Daschle.

Obama earlier appointed Frank Torti, the agency’s chief scientist, to run the FDA temporarily after former Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach stepped down earlier this month. (Reporting by Susan Heavey and David Alexander; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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