Named this week by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson to serve as deputy commissioner of the FDA, some believe Lester Crawford Jr. could end up the de facto commissioner.

The FDA commissioner position has been vacant since the resignation of Clinton appointee Jane Henney after President George Bush’s inauguration in January 2001. Crawford, now the senior official at the FDA, will assume the commissioner’s duties until a permanent commissioner is named.

“Lester Crawford has devoted his career to promoting safer products for the public, and he brings to the FDA valuable experience and leadership skills,” Thompson said in a statement. “With his help, the FDA will continue to build on its successes in ensuring the safety of foods, drugs and medical products for all Americans.”

Crawford takes over from Bernard Schwetz, a career FDA official who has served as acting principal deputy commissioner since Jan. 21, 2001. Schwetz, a senior adviser for science, will continue to work on public health and FDA issues within the agency.

“Dr. Bern Schwetz has led the FDA during a challenging year, when the nation faced its first bioterrorism attack,” Thompson said. “Forward-looking actions by FDA, like early and rapid approval of effective drugs against anthrax, played a crucial role in saving lives. I thank Bern for his service over the past year.”

Crawford most recently served as head of the Center for Food and Nutrition Policy at Virginia Tech University in Blackburg. He also served as administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service from 1987 to 1991 and as director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine from 1978 to 1980, and again from 1982 to 1985.

He received a doctor of veterinary medicine from Auburn University in Alabama in 1963 and a Ph.D. in pharmacology from the University of Georgia in Athens in 1969. During his career, he also has served as executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, executive vice president of the National Food Processors Association, chairman of the University of Georgia’s department of physiology-pharmacology and as a practicing veterinarian.

Carl Feldbaum, president of the Washington-based Biotechnology Industry Organization, said, “People in the industry like and highly respect Dr. Crawford, especially people in the food and agriculture sector. We are pleased he got appointed. He is the only high-ranking Bush appointment at the FDA, and this constitutes a step forward.”

James Benson, executive vice president of regulatory affairs for the Advanced Medical Technology Association in Washington, said there is a strong possibility that Crawford could retain the de facto commissioner’s role for some time. In fact, the former acting director of the FDA from 1989 to 1990 said it is possible that Crawford may retain that head position for the rest of Bush’s first term, though Congress might resist such a move. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they never appointed anybody to the FDA commissioner position,” he said, noting that Bush has been in office for over a year and there still has not been a formal nomination for the position.

Feldbaum, however, said, “His appointment does not obviate the need for the administration to think hard about an FDA commissioner or a number of health-related positions that are open. There is a bit of a vacuum at the top.” He said the FDA particularly needs a leader familiar with health care matters and issues related to PDUFA.

Openings in addition to the FDA commissioner are the surgeon general and directors for both the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Part of the problem, said Benson, who also served as a deputy commissioner for the FDA for three years and as director of that agency’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, is the extensive background checks required prior to nomination for the job. “These checks take forever,” he said.

Feldbaum said, “With all the criteria that have been floated by the administration and Congress, they’ve effectively disqualified the entire population of the planet Earth.”

Benson, who worked with Crawford during his days as director of the Center for Veterinary Medicine, said the appointment was a good one. “He knows how FDA works, he understands the field operations so he can hit the ground running.” He said that Crawford is a decisive person who is not afraid to make a decision, even when faced with all the different consumer and industry groups that weigh in on courses of action facing the agency. “I think Les will handle that very well.”

On the device side, Benson acknowledged that it is possibly one of the areas that Crawford is the least familiar with, but he doesn’t see that as a problem. “It means he would probably rely more on the folks in the device center that are [already] there. He certainly understands what the requirements of the law are.”

The nomination also garnered praise from the food industry. The Grocery Manufacturers of America in Washington, an association of food, beverage and consumer product producers, said it welcomed Bush’s selection of Crawford. “The Food and Drug Administration is the global gold standard for food safety. President Bush’s choice of Dr. Crawford as the new deputy director brings a much-needed expert in food safety to the leadership level of the FDA,” said C. Manly Molpus, GMA’s president and CEO. “On every important food safety issue of the day, from BSE [bovine spongiform encephalitis] to Listeria, to ensuring the physical security of the food supply, Crawford will be a strong advocate of consumer safety and for regulations based on sound scientific principles,” he said.

The National Food Processors Association in Washington also approved of the choice. “The National Food Processors Association applauds President Bush and HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson on the appointment of Dr. Lester Crawford as deputy commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration,” said association President and CEO John Cady. “Dr. Crawford brings public policy and public health expertise and experience to his new position at FDA.” NFPA said it gained first-hand knowledge of Crawford’s “skilled and insightful approach to food safety and public health policy” during his tenure as the association’s executive vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs.