by Marion Nestle
Jul 7 2009

Michael Taylor appointed to FDA: A good choice!

On Monday this week, Michael Taylor began his new job as special assistant to the FDA Commissioner for food safety.  He will be in charge of implementing whatever food safety laws Congress finally decides to pass.

I know that what I am about to say will surprise, if not shock, many of you, but I think he’s an excellent choice for this job. Yes, I know he worked for Monsanto, not only once (indirectly) but twice (directly). And yes, he’s the first person whose name is mentioned when anyone talks about the “revolving door” between the food industry and government. And yes, he signed off on the FDA’s consumer-unfriendly policies on labeling genetically modified foods.

But before you decide that I must have drunk the Kool Aid on this one, hear me out.  He really is a good choice for this job.  Why?  Because he managed to get USDA to institute HACCP (science-based food safety regulations) for meat and poultry against the full opposition of the meat industry — a truly heroic accomplishment.  His position on food safety has been strong and consistent for years.  He favors a single food agency, HACCP for all foods, and accountability and enforcement.  We need this for FDA-regulated foods (we also need enforcement for USDA-regulated foods, but he won’t be able to touch that unless Congress says so).  So he’s the person most likely to be able to get decent regulations in place and get them enforced.

I say this in full knowledge of his history.  In the 1990s, Mr. Taylor held positions in both FDA and USDA and his career in these agencies is complicated.  As I explained in my 2003 book, Safe Food  (see the endnotes for full documentation), Mr. Taylor began his career as a lawyer with the FDA. When he left the FDA, he went to work for King & Spalding, a law firm that represented Monsanto, the company that developed genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (BGH), corn, and soybeans.

He revolved back to the FDA in 1991 as deputy commissioner for policy, and he held that position during the time the agency approved Monsanto’s BGH. At the time of the review, he had been with FDA for more than two years. This made him exempt from newly passed conflict-of-interest guidelines that applied only to the first year of federal employment.  He also was a coauthor of the FDA’s 1992 policy statement on genetically engineered plant foods, and he signed the Federal Register notice stating that milk from cows treated with BGH did not have to be labeled as such.

For whatever it is worth, a 1999 lawsuit and GAO report revealed considerable disagreement about these decisions within FDA. These also revealed that Mr. Taylor had recused himself from matters related to Monsanto’s BGH and had “never sought to influence the thrust or content” of the agency’s policies on Monsanto’s products.  I can’t tell whether there were ethical breaches here or not, but there is little question that his work at FDA gave the appearance of conflict of interest, if nothing more.

But wait! Watch what happened when he moved to USDA in 1994 as head of its Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Just six weeks after taking the job, Mr. Taylor gave his first public speech to an annual convention of the American Meat Institute. There, he announced that USDA would now be driven by public health goals as much or more than by productivity concerns. The USDA would soon require science-based HACCP systems in every meat and poultry plant, would be testing raw ground beef, and would require contaminated meat to be destroyed or reprocessed. And because E. coli O157.H7 is infectious at very low doses, the USDA would consider any level of contamination of ground beef with these bacteria to be unsafe, adulterated, and subject to enforcement action.  Whew.  This took real courage.

The amazing thing is that he actually made this work.  Now, HACCP rules apply more to USDA-regulated products than to FDA-regulated products. This new appointment gives Mr. Taylor the chance to bring FDA’s policies in line with USDA’s and even more, to make sure they are monitored and enforced.

In Safe Food, I summarize Mr. Taylor’s position on food safety regulation from 2002. Then, he argued for, among other things:

  • A single agency accountable for providing consistent and coordinated oversight of food safety, from farm to table.
  • Institution of Pathogen Reduction: HACCP, with performance standards verified by pathogen testing, at every step of food production.
  • Recall authority, access to records, and penalties for lapses in safety procedures.
  • Standards for imported foods equivalent to those for domestic foods.
  • Food safety to take precedence over commercial considerations in trade disputes.

Yes, he revolved back to Monsanto after leaving FDA but he didn’t stay long. He left Monsanto for Resources for the Future, a think tank on policy issues.   In 2007, he went to academia and joined the food policy think tank (see his bio) at George Washington University.  There, he produced the excellent food safety report I mentioned in a previous post, which repeats these points. This is about as good a position on food safety as can be expected of any federal official.

I wish him all the luck in the world in getting the safety of FDA-regulated foods under control. For those of you who are still dubious, how about giving him a chance to show what he can do?  But do keep the pressure on – hold his feet to the fire – so he knows he has plenty of support for doing the right thing.

[Posted from Skagway, Alaska, en route to Fairbanks]

  • Thanks for posting that, Marion. In and of itself, your profile of Michael Taylor is almost a synopsis of just how complicated food policy really is.

  • Thanks! We really need more level headed, informed communication like this!

  • Thanks for this in-depth analysis. I knew that there was probably more to the Michael Taylor story than the anti-GE folks were saying, especially since they often exaggerate to the point of sensationalism. Would it be too much trouble to ask you to provide a few more reference links so people can read the source material themselves?

  • Cathy Richards

    I agree that one’s associations don’t define one’s principles. However, they do colour them. Hopefully this appointment is as positive as you have hypothesized.

    However, the HAACP rules for the meat industry have done little to prevent outbreaks and recalls, even though they’ve facilitated recalls. What HAACP has done is hurt the small ranchers. In British Columbia our new meat regulations (HAACP based) have meant that people raising a few cattle on the side simply can no longer afford to do so — they can give away the meat, but they can’t sell it unless it’s processed in an approved slaughterhouse — and those are few and far between in our very large geographical area. Most have decided to sell their stock to mega ranchers. The days of local butchers and knowing where your meat comes from is virtually gone, with the exception of a few incredibly dedicated ranchers. It’s all mass market now.

    HAACP is a great idea that in its application has gone bad.

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  • Jan

    Monsanto’s hold on the USDA is now complete. He also wrote the standard of “substantial equivalence” that gives biotech full reign to place their untested organisms in our food without labelling. So pardon me if I don’t exhibit the same glee you do in this appointment.

  • Actually, strictly speaking, Taylor (and the USDA) did not declare in 1994 that E. coli O157:H7 was an adulterant only in ground beef. It is true that the microbiological testing program (issued in Final Draft on October 11, 994) was focused solely on ground beef, because the risk of infection was deemed primarily to be attributable to the consumption of “undercooked” ground beef. If you track how the HACCP Final Rule developed, it can be seen that no explicit distinction is made with regard to ground beef versus other meat products with regard to E. coli O157:H7. It is not until the January 19, 1999 policy statement (64 Fed. Reg. No. 11, 2803-05), in which the USDA announced its intention to start testing trimmings, that the distinction between so-called “intact” and “non intact” meat came to the fore, and the resulting industry push to declare that E. coli O157:H7 on intact meat is not an adulterant under the FMIA. Since then confusion has reigned, notwithstanding the appellate court decision we achieved (and defended all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court), that expressly ruled that the USDA lacked the authority under the FMIA to declare something an adulterant on some types of meat but not other. Kriefall, et al. v. Excel Meat Corp., 265 Wis.2d 476 (Wis. Ct. App. 2003). Interestingly, with the current recall of intact cuts of meat manufactured by JBS Swift underway, it is even more called into question what the USDA is up to here. If E. coli O157:H7 is, according to the USDA, only an adulterant in ground beef, where is its authority to treat the JBS Swift meat as properly subject to recall. Same question with the 2008 Nebraska Beef recall.

    I could go on, but won’t. Suffice it to say that much injury, illness, and death has occurred over the years because of the confused manner that Mr. Taylor’s “courageous” announcement was put into effect as a matter of both policy and rule-making.

  • Janet Camp

    After reading your thoughts and the comments, I am in a real quandry. I will trust you on this for now, but is Taylor really the best choice or just the choice we can live with while holding our nose a bit?

  • Want to know about Mr. Taylor? Try the link below. You could call him the GMO corporations’ poster boy, flagship, champion cheer leader. Monsanto and the other GMO producers have been feeding genetically modified food to the rest of us in the U.S. for at least 20 + years. No labeling, no tests, nothing. Just an okay from the FDA. GMO products are in 70% of our food. No studies done on its effects on humans. Indepedent European scientists now completing a round of studies on animals fed GMO. It ain’t pretty, folks. Google it. Europe has all but run GMO producers out of their countries and with good reason. Google Dr. Shiva’s website. She’s taken the rascals to the mat and is working on running them out of India. If you don’t see any other documentary this year, see Food, Inc. It’s worth your time and anyone else’s you can talk into going with you. Have a nice day.
    http://www.opednews.com/articles/The-2009-Food-Safety-Bil-by-Nicole-Johnson-090418-680.html

  • Tom

    I’m not quite so impressed. The meat industry is not Monsanto’s big concern, it’s seeds and patenting them to control the world’s crops. It’s not like he was really corageously going up against his former employer.

  • alex reynolds

    It would not surprise me if Marion Nestle is in the pay of Monsanto– theyve done far worse, check their history.

  • DOGISMYTH

    Gee….the propaganda and fraud never stops. Now they have writers like Marion Nester (whoever that is…lol) writing about how wonderful these guys are for us.

    Gee….let’s make it clear that no industry related or associated individual will ever make an appropriate and conscientious decision on behalf of the general public. Its all about money, honey. And Nester, you are obviously running with the money, because your argument is BS.

    Is anyone keeping names of those that betray the trust of the general public? We really should start a list since these people will be held accountable in the future, one way or another.

  • DOGISMYTH

    BTW – I just put YOU on the list of authors I should never ever spend a dime on to read your crap. Play us as stupid, and the stupid is on you.

  • >>>>>It would not surprise me if Marion Nestle is in the pay of Monsanto– theyve done far worse, check their history.<<<<<

    Wow, I think we need a version of Godwin’s law: When anyone ever calls you a ‘tool of’ or ‘in the pay of’ Monsanto, that person automatically loses the argument.

  • The parallels to the banking industry are striking, so perhaps we should consider this query:

    Would we welcome Henry Paulson back to DC with open arms because of his inside experience at Goldman Sachs and in the Treasury?

  • Trey, I concur. Perhaps it could be called “Monstersanto’s Law” or “Monsauron’s Law.” I have had that false accusation tossed my way a few times because I dared to explain some peer-reviewed research that debunked their claims.

  • Jill Reid

    I’m a big admirer of Marion Nestle, I value her opinions and recommend her books to people interested in eating right and the politics that go into our food choices. I don’t always agree with her (like her stance on artificial sweeteners being benign), but for the most part she imparts excellent, common-sense advice. Her stance on Michael Taylor, however, concerns me tremendously. I am very disappointed in her enthusiastic support of him. Perhaps if she had taken a more cautious approach with her support, and not such outright enthusiasm – this makes me quite suspicious – she’s always seemed to have such a level head, but this seems to break with her common-sense advice. Though I will continue to recommend her books (What to Eat and Food Politics), I will think twice about her advice from here on out.

  • Fuzzy

    It’s been two weeks now since I walked away from this post shaking my head. I’m still stunned, I still don’t understand how Ms. Nestle made this post in good conscience about someone who is responsible for irreparable harm of immeasurable consequences to people in this country, starting with farmers and their families who used to save their seed but now are bullied by Monsanto. I am disappointed.

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  • Sam

    I would like to believe you that Michael Taylor is fine choice and a good choice for American consumers, but I cannot.

    His past is still there. And like others have said his ruling concerned the meat industry. I will change my mind about Mr. Taylor when he comes out against GMO terminator seeds. Or when he comes and says GMO needs much more testing. Or when Mr. Taylor comes out and explains how GMO pollen and seeds are kept from other fields.

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  • MeatScience

    I realize this post is a little old, but I have a comment referring to Cathy Richads post:

    I agree that one’s associations don’t define one’s principles. However, they do colour them. Hopefully this appointment is as positive as you have hypothesized.

    However, the HAACP rules for the meat industry have done little to prevent outbreaks and recalls, even though they’ve facilitated recalls. What HAACP has done is hurt the small ranchers. In British Columbia our new meat regulations (HAACP based) have meant that people raising a few cattle on the side simply can no longer afford to do so — they can give away the meat, but they can’t sell it unless it’s processed in an approved slaughterhouse — and those are few and far between in our very large geographical area. Most have decided to sell their stock to mega ranchers. The days of local butchers and knowing where your meat comes from is virtually gone, with the exception of a few incredibly dedicated ranchers. It’s all mass market now.

    HAACP is a great idea that in its application has gone bad.”

    It’s HACCP not HAACP. At least get the acronym right even if your facts aren’t.

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  • Lisa Lopez

    I still can’t believe this article by Marion Nestle. Is it for real? Given Taylor’s history and past “affiliations” I will NEVER trust the man! I can only thank him for his part in helping to make this world a scarier place to live in, and all for what? MONEY, of course.

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