Crawford assumes top post at FDA

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 22, 2004

If nothing else, the title now reflects the work.

On Friday, Dr. Lester M. Crawford, who spent his youthful days at a dairy in “downtown Gallion,” was named acting commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Previously, Crawford served as deputy commissioner — the second in command to Dr. Mark McClellan, who was named administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on Friday.

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“More or less, this is pretty much the same job I’ve been doing,” Crawford said in a brief phone interview Friday. “But to explain it, I guess it means I’m to one who’s in charge of the FDA.”

That’s quite a mild way of explaining the nation’s highest ranking scientific position. As commissioner of the FDA, Crawford is responsible for the safety and regulation of drugs, most foods, biological products, medical devices, animal feed and drugs, cosmetics and radiation-emitting equipment.

While the announcement of Crawford’s new position came Friday, this is hardly the first time the Demopolis native has directed the FDA. In 2002, before the appointment of McClellan, Crawford served as acting commissioner for nine months. During that time, the FDA — like nearly every other governmental agency — kept of a focus on terrorism. In the case of the FDA, Crawford’s concern was bioterrorism.

During an interview with the Times in early 2003, Crawford spelled out those concerns and the role his department has played in the war against terror.

“In this industry, we’re under attack all the time,” he said. “We have to be very careful with the products we regulate, but now we’ve had to change our focus.”

Among the many threats to America, Crawford said terrorists likely would use “something in the food supply as a means of inflicting terrorism on the United States.”

On Friday, Crawford did not dismiss the threat of bioterrorism. However, he suggested more current issues he and the FDA must address through the remainder of President Bush’s administration.

“One of the biggest things is the re-importation of prescription drugs from Canada,” Crawford said.

As prescription drug prices have increased, Crawford said the trend of many in the United States is to take a doctor’s prescription and purchase the medication from Canada at a much cheaper price.

“It’s cheaper there because Canada has price controls in place,” he said. “We have a free enterprise in the United States… And from the FDA’s point of view, we can’t monitor the safety of the drugs coming from Canada.”

While he has no plans to become a policing agency, Crawford said the FDA can help alleviate the price strains of medication through research and development of new drugs.

Another hot topic in the medical community concerns the growing size of Americans — literally.

“There’s a major initiative with obesity right now,” Crawford said. “We’re looking to change the labels in hopes that it will help this epidemic.”

Fourteen years ago, Crawford worked in the Department of Agriculture and led an initiative that has become commonplace with food products. Much of the recognition for food labeling is given to the Demopolis native and Auburn graduate, and with the obesity problem in America, Crawford said new steps need to be taken in the process of nutritional labeling.

“We want to emphasize calories,” he said. “It’s clear to us that the cause of this problem is that people take in more calories than they expend.”

Along with making the calories of a serving more dominant on a nutrition label, Crawford also said new labels would define what percentage of daily caloric intake each serving contains.

With President Bush facing a November re-election campaign, it’s unlikely another FDA commissioner will be appointed before the end of the current administration. Crawford, who deferred that question to the White House, did admit he likely will hold the position for the next few months.

Until then, people like Susan Grayson — Crawford’s sister — can sit back and take pride in a Demopolis citizen who helps keep food and medical products safe.

“I got to talk to him today, and I’m really excited about it,” Grayson said. “I’m happy he got this. He deserves it.”

Dr. Timothy Boosinger, dean of the Auburn College of Veterinary Medicine, said Crawford will handle the position with great experience.

“We’ve known of Dr. Crawford’s ability for many years because he has been very active in supporting the College of Veterinary Medicine,” Boosinger said. “He will do an excellent job leading the FDA.”