FOR HIS 40TH BIRTHDAY LAST MONTH, David Kessler received a handmade poster from his 6-year-old son, Benjamin. Dad is pictured in a wrestling ring a la Hulk Hogan. His opponent: a large carton of orange juice labeled FRESH.

In real life, Kessler, at 5'11" and 150 lbs., is no Hulk. And his preppy wire rims don't inspire terror either. No matter: Since he became commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration seven months ago, Kessler has made a name for himself by taking food and pharmaceutical Goliaths to the mat.

In April, Kessler forced the makers of Citrus Hill orange juice and Ragu pasta sauce to stop referring to their processed products as "fresh." A few weeks later he ordered Crisco and Mazola to remove "no cholesterol" claims from their labels. (Though the claims were technically correct, Kessler felt they implied that the pure-fat corn oil products are good for the heart.) This month he took aim at ice cream, frozen yogurt and other foods that are labeled as more than 90 percent fat free but in fact may derive most of their calories from fat. Last week he took on pharmaceuticals that promote unapproved uses of their drugs. One target: Retin-A as a wrinkle-prevention ointment.

Some food companies say that Kessler is unfairly singling out individual brands before first giving notice to the entire industry that regulatory action would be taken. Comic Jay Leno, getting in on the act, recently complained that his Bumble Bee tuna contained no bumblebees. Kessler was delighted: "I knew the FDA had hit the big time when Leno included us in his monologue."

Ultimately, Kessler says, he wants labels to contain information about what part of the recommended daily intake of fat, fiber, cholesterol and sodium is provided in a given serving. "Consumers deserve more accurate information," he says.

The wits in Washington, D.C, have already dubbed him "Eliot Knessler," after Eliot Ness of Untouchables fame. Indeed, Kessler has a reputation for incorruptibility that is sorely needed at the FDA, which recently has been mired in scandal. The last permanent commissioner, Frank Young, was forced to step down in December 1989 after several agency employees admitted accepting payoffs from generic-drug companies for speeding approval of their drugs. And federal investigators reportedly are checking allegations that a few employees informed stockbrokers about new drug approvals before they were announced.

Kessler seems uniquely qualified to restore credibility to the FDA. After graduating from Amherst College in 1973, he shuttled between schools to earn a law degree from the University of Chicago in 1978 and a medical degree from Harvard a year later. Then, as a resident in pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, he worked with a Senate committee that was drafting new food-safety legislation. Food-industry attorney and former FDA counsel Peter Barton Hutt used to get late-night phone calls from Kessler from the Johns Hopkins emergency room. "With sirens and people shouting in the background, David would calmly discuss an obscure clause in the law," says Hutt. "He's one of the most hardworking people I've ever met."

Appointed medical director of the hospital of New York City's Albert Einstein College of Medicine in 1984, Kessler taught courses in food-and-drug law at Columbia University and even signed on for weekly duty in the emergency room of a municipal hospital. "In the end, I'm a doc," he says, but adds that he also "really wanted to run a large health-care organization." On top of everything else, he somehow found time to be with his children, Elise, now 8, and Benjamin. "There wasn't a night I missed tucking the kids in," he says. "Then I'd go back to work."

Once stocky, Kessler has lost 55 lbs. since he joined the FDA last November. Part of his secret may be that his wife, Paulette, 38, who remained with the kids in Scarsdale, N.Y., until the end of the school year, hasn't I been around to remind him to eat. The family is moving this month to Washington. "Everybody in the agency will be happy when my family arrives," Kessler says. "They hope I'll slow down, so they can go home in the evenings."

DAVID GROGAN
MARILYN BALAMACI in Washington, D.C.

  • Contributors:
  • Marilyn Balamaci.