(Sept. 8) Washington, D.C. — If timing is everything, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Mark McClellan said, then the 2003 Washington Public Policy Conference got it right.

McClellan, who has held his post for nine months, said the Sept. 2-4 United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association event was occurring at a time when the government was moving on both political and regulatory fronts on a wide variety of issues.

CRITICAL ISSUES BEFORE CONGRESS

“It’s not just any other week in Washington,” he said. “There are a lot of critical issues being considered by Congress,” he said, noting nutrition, country-of-origin labeling and rule making on bioterrorism legislation.

He made a fast-paced, wide-ranging presentation Sept. 3 to the crowd of 250 attending the conference.

He said the FDA remains responsive to industry input to make regulations as inobtrusive as possible, even as the agency has been given unprecedented authority over the food supply.

The push for healthier diets for Americans puts fruits and vegetables square in the middle of public policy, he said. The recent appointment of a government dietary guidance committee highlights the policy deliberations to come, he said.

PUBLIC HEALTH CRISIS

“There are at least 300,000 deaths each year associated with diseases resulting from obesity,” he said, noting that the problem spans the spectrum of old and young.

The total economic bite of obesity has been estimated at $100 billion each year, he said.

The decline of exercise in modern culture has occurred at the same time food as become tastier, cheaper and more plentiful than ever, he said.

That puts the onus on government and marketers to make people better informed about diet choices and to help them value their future health as much as the convenience and taste of food at the moment.

“We need to do more to make safe fruit and vegetables more available and inform more people about the importance of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables,” he said.