“Up to 126.9 eggs tainted with pesticides are fine to eat a day.”
This was the message that the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety and the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs gave out to assure the public, outraged and panicked by the recent egg contamination scandal that has rocked the nation for the past week. News commentator Kim Jong-bae, who hosts a local TBS radio show, put it this way – “Eating them won’t kill you.” That was perfect. It was lamentable that the government’s message was only this simple for the public who have been wary of the contaminated eggs for the whole week.
The government’s message was out of tune with President Moon Jae-in’s public apology made only a few hours earlier at a Cabinet meeting. What went wrong? Take a deep breath and look out of the country for a while. Korea has the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, and the U.S. has the famous Food and Drug Administration.
The head of the FDA, a globally influential body, is appointed by the U.S. president. The appointment is often influenced by political tendencies of the Republicans and the Democrats or the worldview of the U.S. president. Sometimes, the selection results in controversies. Some of the former FDA heads resigned in disgrace. However, there seems to have been one unchanging principle in the appointment of the FDA head – that there was no single FDA commissioner who was “unfit” for the job.
There were three FDA heads during the past nine years under the Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump who are poles apart from each other. After taking office, Obama named Margaret Hamburg as the new FDA commissioner and the world gave the nod of consent to the appointment. Her excellent career showed she was eligible enough for the job.
Hamburg was a scientist, researching infectious diseases such as AIDS at state-run institutions. But she did not confine herself to laboratories. She was an active professional in bioterrorism. From 1991 to 1997, she accumulated expertise in public health and regulatory administration while serving as the commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Her scope of work experience ranged from a scientist to an administrator.
Hamburg served as the FDA’s commissioner for six years from May 2009 to April 2015 during the eight years of the Obama administration. Robert Califf, who picked up the baton from Hamburg, served for a relatively short period from February 2016 to January 2017. However, Califf’s qualification by no means fell short of Hamburg’s. He was a professor of cardiology at Duke University School of Medicine from 1980 to 2015.
Califf was not just a professor. He founded the Duke Clinical Research Institute and had led many clinical cardiology studies and researches, accumulating expertise in both science and administration. Recognized for his achievements, he was appointed as deputy commissioner of the FDA in January 2015. His job as the second person would have served as an opportunity to learn how the FDA operates and understand how regulatory administration works. Then, he took office as the FDA commissioner the next year.
Then, how about the FDA under Donald Trump, who is often ridiculed as the worst U.S. president in history? Trump appointed Scott Gottlieb as the FDA chief on March 11. Compared with those of his predecessors, Gottlieb’s qualification was just as good. He served as the deputy commissioner as early as in George W. Bush’s years.
There is more than that in Gottlieb’s career. At the time of the appointment, he was either a board member or an advisor at nine pharmaceutical companies, including GlaxoSmithKline, or medical equipment makers. In other words, he was the key figure in the pharmaceutical industry. Consequently, his close relationship with the pharmaceutical sector prompted concerns about conflict of interests. Cliff, his predecessor under the Obama administration, came under fire for receiving research funds and donations from many pharmaceutical firms.
With businessman-turned-Republican Trump winning the presidential election, the appointment of a business-friendly man at the top post of the FDA was considered as a fact of life. It was same as President Moon Jae-in, who won the election on the back of the liberal citizens, appointed a civic group activist Kim Sang-jo as the head of the antitrust watchdog Fair Trade Commission. What I want to point out here is that Gottlieb was perfectly fit for the job of the FDA commissioner, despite the controversies.
To everyone’s surprise, Gottlieb opposed to the views of President Trump during his confirmation hearing after being appointed as the FDA commissioner. He said he could not agree with Trump who has repeatedly said autism resulted from massive vaccinations during his presidential campaign. “This has been one of the most exhaustively studied questions in history. There is no causal link between vaccination and autism,” AP quoted him as saying.
President Moon’s MFDS
Let’s go back to the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety. President Moon Jae-in appointed Ryu Young-jin as the minister of food and drug safety on July 12. Ryu had been running two neighborhood pharmacies in front of the Pusan National University Hospital with his wife for more than 30 years – although it is doubtful whether calling them neighborhood stores operating in front of a large university hospital, would be appropriate.
As a successful pharmacist, Ryu started out his local political activities and got connected to President Moon along the way. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Ryu worked as a joint chief campaigner for the Busan electorate. During the 2016 general election, he was a proportional representation candidate but failed to win a seat. In other words, he aspired to become a politician on the back of his successful career as a pharmacist.
Of course, Ryu must have built vast knowledge about drugs during his 30-year career. However, the Minister of Food and Drug Safety needs more than just knowledge about drugs. The ministry regulates not only drugs but foods, chemicals and bio industry, which is at the core of the fourth industrial revolution to which the Moon administration pays great attention.
The head of the Food and Drug Safety Ministry and ministry officials need integrated skills. For example, they should not just evaluate the risks of chemicals but decide whether to regulate them by taking into account various interests of citizens, industries, and foreign countries. In the process, an ability to perform effective communication is a must.
The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety is where science is intertwined with the economy, politics, social affairs and culture. That explains why the complexity of the ministry’s work is often referred to “regulatory science.” And the leader who orchestrates all the intricate work is the minister of food and drug safety. Can a local pharmacist with a 30-year career play this role properly?
In fact, there had been many pitiable former ministers. However, President Moon and his government promised to put the priority on citizens’ “lives and “safety.” Then, the minister of food and drug safety, who is in charge of the public health and safety, should be a better one than his predecessors under the former administrations. At least, the minister appointed by President Moon should be better than the one designated by the pathetic Trump.
Last but not least, Food and Drug Safety Minister Ryu Young-jin must have felt that he was unfit for the job over the past month. Now is the time for him to resign, before he seriously threatens the nation’s public health and safety further, and before he damages President Moon whom he reportedly cares about so much.
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