A time of transition at the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine

Former director overseeing FDA food safety, new director is former AVMA staff member
Published on February 01, 2008
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Import safety, risk communication, and new biotechnologies are among the issues facing any director of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine.

The former CVM director hasn't left these issues far behind. Dr. Stephen F. Sundlof became the director of the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, effective Jan. 7, after serving for more than a decade as director of the CVM.

The new CVM director is eager to face the challenges ahead of her. Dr. Sundlof's successor is Dr. Bernadette M. Dunham, who served as acting director of the AVMA Governmental Relations Division before joining the FDA. She has worked closely with Dr. Sundlof as the CVM deputy director since 2006.  

Up to a challenge 

As she starts in her new position, Dr. Dunham's vision for the CVM is to follow in the footsteps of her predecessor and continue public outreach.

"Steve Sundlof has left a legacy at CVM, and I'm very much hoping to help that grow further," Dr. Dunham said in an interview during the recent AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference. "There is a lot that we can do at CVM to help the public, yet they are often not aware of the diverse issues we cover."

The CVM helps protect animal and human health by regulating feed, food additives, and drugs for animals—including food-producing animals, companion animals, and other nonfood-producing animals such as zoo animals.

The massive recalls of pet food in 2007 heightened public awareness of the CVM, and Dr. Dunham would like to build on that awareness so the public is far more familiar with the center and ready to rely on the center as a resource.

The recalls also focused attention on the safety of imports. The problems with pet food were associated with the adulteration of an ingredient from China. The FDA recently responded to concerns about food imports with the new Food Protection Plan.

Dr. Dunham said the plan promotes cooperation and emphasizes the areas of prevention, intervention, and response to protect food safety. She said the CVM needs to embrace legislation that emerges relevant to the Food Protection Plan and to consult stakeholders in creating regulations to implement the plan.

"When you bring the best minds from all the best groups together, usually you get the very best result," Dr. Dunham said.

At the same time, the FDA will continue to work with other countries to improve food safety. Dr. Dunham said the agency has been in discussions with various countries, such as China and India, about the possibility of placing representatives on site as part of a new strategy to build safety into every product and develop common standards.

Communicating the risks that are inherent in food and drugs is another challenge for the CVM, Dr. Dunham said. Members of the public may not have the same understanding of risk as scientists do.

"You have to have the best science," Dr. Dunham said. "But then, you have to work with everybody to help them understand how it helps lead to policy, how it helps lead to regulation, and how it helps them every day in their lives. Reassure them and help them make decisions based upon the best science that we have."

Dr. Dunham said regulating new biotechnologies—while reassuring the public about the safety of the technologies—is another activity at the CVM. In a recent JAVMA News article, Drs. Dunham and Sundlof discussed how the center is studying areas ranging from pharmacogenomics to transgenic animals to nanotechnology (see JAVMASept. 15, 2007).

Dr. Stephen F. SundlofDr. Bernadette M. Dunham

Looking back, looking forward
In her previous position as CVM deputy director, Dr. Dunham also was director of the Office of Minor Use and Minor Species Animal Drug Development. The CVM's newest office offers an alternative development process to improve availability of animal drugs for minor species and uncommon diseases in major species.

"What's so nice is the versatility of CVM to be creative—because one size doesn't always fit everything, and so you have to be flexible," Dr. Dunham said. "Embracing some of the newer approaches and new ideas is challenging and rewarding and exciting, and that will continue with MUMS."

The CVM plans to hire more veterinarians and other staff to expand the office, while the office's Dr. Meg Oeller will serve as acting director.

Dr. Dunham's five years with the FDA haven't been her only preparation for becoming the CVM director. Previously, she worked for the AVMA Governmental Relations Division in Washington, D.C., for eight years. She started as a policy specialist, advancing to become assistant director and then acting director.

"I had wonderful opportunities to build relationships, to understand government," Dr. Dunham said. She said she learned about pulling together coalitions, advocating for the veterinary profession, and providing input on legislation and regulations.

Before joining the AVMA staff, Dr. Dunham had worked at several universities. She was a faculty member in the Department of Pharmacology at the State University of New York Health Science Center at Syracuse, where she concurrently held the position of director of laboratory animal medicine.

Dr. Dunham said her experience in academia has helped her understand the need to support research to keep medicine moving.  

A change of directorships

A number of issues cross over from the CVM to the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. In his new position as CFSAN director, Dr. Sundlof will still be addressing the safety of imports. Other crossover issues include how feed and drugs for aquatic animals and dairy cattle affect the safety of seafood and dairy products, respectively. (The USDA regulates eggs and most meat.) 

"It is more important than ever that the American public feel confident in the safety of the food they eat and feed their loved ones," said Andrew C. von Eschenbach, MD, FDA commissioner, when announcing the new directors of the CFSAN and CVM. "Drs. Sundlof and Dunham are world-class scientists and leaders, with the dedication, vision, and expertise needed to tackle challenges and enhance the science involved in assuring the safety and nutritional value of something so vital to healthy life—namely, our food."

Dr. Sundlof succeeds Robert E. Brackett, PhD, as CFSAN director. Dr. Brackett became senior vice president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association in November.

When he was CVM director, Dr. Sundlof served on domestic and international committees regarding food safety, leading to development of new international policies and safety standards. Since 1994, he has served as the chairman of the Codex Committee on Residues of Veterinary Drugs in Foods. He also provided input for the new FDA Food Protection Plan.

Dr. Sundlof was instrumental in putting programs in place to prevent bovine spongiform encephalopathy from entering the U.S. feed system. The United States has had no cases of BSE resulting from a failure of the feed system. Dr. Sundlof also has tackled topics such as antimicrobial resistance in foodborne bacteria, consumer concerns about recombinant bovine somatotropin for increasing milk production in dairy cows, and the safety of food from animal clones.

Prior to joining the FDA, Dr. Sundlof served on the faculty of the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine.