Consumer advocacy groups are questioning President Bush's choice to head the Food and Drug Administration because of how he led the agency when it faced growing criticism that it has failed to protect the public from unsafe prescription drugs.
Lester Crawford, M.D., who has been acting or deputy FDA commissioner for the past three years, faced a confirmation hearing Thursday before the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The panel's Republican members support the nomination, while Democrats have adopted a wait-and-see attitude.
"Dr. Crawford's eminently qualified to handle the challenges and responsibilities of keeping our nation's food and drug supply safe and secure," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a member of the panel.
Three consumer groups, in a joint letter to the committee, criticized the nomination. They contended the FDA's "high profile missteps and failure to take timely action" in protecting the public against unsafe prescription drugs raise questions about Crawford's "leadership, his ability to manage interagency conflicts and willingness to act in the best interest of consumers."
The groups -- Consumers Union, Consumer Federation of America and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group -- focused on the FDA's response to concerns raised about Vioxx, a painkiller that drug manufacturer Merck pulled from the market last September.
Before Merck withdrew the drug, an FDA scientist had found an increased risk of heart attack and strokes in patients taking the painkiller. Also, three weeks before Merck pulled the drug, the agency approved it for use by children.
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America is backing Crawford's nomination.
"Dr. Crawford knows the agency and he knows it well," said Jeff Trewhitt, a spokesman for the trade group. "He responds to crises quickly and with quiet efficiency."
A day after Bush nominated him, Crawford announced his support for an independent board to oversee drug safety issues at the FDA. The board would consist of FDA employees and medical experts from other government agencies, who would be appointed by Crawford. He also promised more openness in the agency's communications with the public.
Jeannine Kenney, senior policy analyst at Consumers Union, said the FDA already has an array of advisory boards. What it needs to do is to give an already existing office more authority and more resources to track and regulate drugs once they've been approved for the market, she said.
Before coming to the FDA in 2002, Crawford served for five years as director of the Center for Food and Nutrition Policy at Virginia Tech.