by Marion Nestle
Feb 17 2012

Some thoughts on the “fire Mike Taylor” petitions

USA Today has picked up the various Internet petitions—SignOn, FoodDemocracyNow, CredoAction, etc— to fire Mike Taylor, the head food safety person at the FDA. 

When the FDA hired Mike Taylor nearly three years ago, I wrote a long post reviewing his complicated employment history: Monsanto, FDA, USDA, Monsanto, private sector, university, FDA—a classic example of the “revolving door.”.    

He was at FDA, although recused, when the agency approved GM foods and denied labeling. 

But at USDA, he was a public health hero to food safety advocates.  He was responsible for installing food safety oversight systems that have greatly reduced contamination outbreaks from meat and poultry.

 He was hired at FDA to do the same thing, which is why I thought his appointment made sense at the time.  I thought he ought to be given a chance.

 He has now become the flashpoint for public anger at FDA over issues that include GM foods but go well beyond them:

  • Failure to require labeling of GM foods
  • Failure to recognize the scaled-down safety needs of small farmers
  • Failure to enforce and punish food safety violations by large producers
  • Unfair enforcement of food safety procedures against small producers
  • Clamping down on raw milk producers

As I explained to USA Today, I’m a big fan of MoveOn and grass-roots political action, and I’ve been advocating for GM labeling since I was on the FDA Food Advisory Committee in 1994 (if only they had listened to me).

But I don’t exactly get where the “fire Monsanto Mike” movement is coming from nearly three years after he was hired.   Why make the political so personal?

As I told USA Today,

What would firing Mike Taylor do? It would show the muscle of the anti-corporate food movement, says Nestle, “and there’s much to be said for that.” However, she questions whether Taylor leaving would do anything to advance the goals of this loose coalition of activists. “Will it make the FDA listen more carefully to demands that it keep its priorities where the most serious food safety problems are? I don’t know.”

All of the issues mentioned in the petitions are important.  All are complicated.  All deserve serious thought and attention to political goals.  Will firing Mike Taylor advance those goals? 

I don’t see how.

What am I missing here?


  • Louisa

    I’m inclined to think we agitate too much for the firing of people we dislike and not enough for the change in laws we actually want to see. As such, firing people becomes the default action of organizations faced with criticism. It’s much easier to do than actually changing, and it makes the media critique go away.

  • GMKnow

    I think what you’re missing is that people are tired of a corrupt regulatory system. Whatever his alleged accomplishments, Mr Taylor’s mercurial career changes and areas of influence stink of corporate cronyism and running a stealth defense for his former GMO co-workers.

    Regarding why the furor NOW three years into Mr. Taylor’s employ? He is an ultimate corporate insider and on that basis alone I think he should be sacked. Perhaps he’s the straw man target of people’s anger over lack of GMO labeling? He was appointed by Mr. Obama who, as a presidential candidate, said he’d make GMO labeling one of the first things he’d do if elected. In year 4 of Obama the president, he and HIS USDA have done more in support of the GM/biotech industry by authorizing scores of new GMO crops than defending the public’s right to know. He didn’t give the public labeling. He gave the USA more unlabeled GMOs! Just a wee bit o betrayal from Mr. O.

    Whether you agree or disagree with the occupy movement or any other activist group, any citizen effort that seeks to purge corporate corruption and keepers of false promises from the ranks of government, I’ll happily join in the chorus to sing “Farewell Mr. Taylor! May the private sector welcome you back, as they’ve done so often before, so you can taint our food no more.”

  • I ask you, if not now, then when? You said to give him a chance and he’s had a chance. We can see that he is not doing right by the people in this role. (See your bullet points.) How much more of a chance do you think he should get and do you think he will change?

    By the way, Medico, you don’t need to be a “foodie wingnut” to want independent testing and labeling of GMO products. You merely need to be a thoughtful and considerate human being.

  • Benboom

    People who use terms like “foodie wingnut” have issues of their own, I think.

  • Margeretrc

    How about conflict of interest as a reason? That’s my reason for wanting him out. I know COI is rife in these government agencies, and it may seem unfair to single out Mr. Taylor, but you’ve got to start somewhere. Sadly, there’s no petition circulating to get rid of everyone who has a COI. Appointing someone with ties to Monsanto to the very government agency whose job it is to regulate Monsanto strikes me as–well, appointing the fox to guard the henhouse. My only regret is this push didn’t start earlier–like right after he was appointed. 3 years later does seem a bit like an after thought. “But at USDA, he was a public health hero to food safety advocates. He was responsible for installing food safety oversight systems that have greatly reduced contamination outbreaks from meat and poultry.” Is it just me or does it seem a bit strange that he did not install food safety oversight with respect to GMO? COI, perhaps?
    “Will it make the FDA listen more carefully to demands that it keep its priorities where the most serious food safety problems are?” I don’t know either. But to me that’s irrelevant. Now that the word is out that he has a serious COI, there should be no question as to whether he goes or not. The credibility, such as it is, of these agencies demands it.

  • hjb

    I must agree with Margeretrc about appointing a Monsanto employee to a government agency thats very job is to regulate Monsanto (and other corporations etc). There is something very wrong with that, and it can be seen in many different areas of our government. Regulatory agencies should never consist of those who worked for or represent a particular interest group. The role of regulatory agencies is to protect the people and for that reason Taylor should lose his job. It would also serve as an example (even after three years) that we, the people, are fed up. Doing one good thing while ignoring other problems is not enough. He has had plenty of time to make changes, and still nothing. It is time for Taylor to leave office.

  • april

    I don’t think you are missing anything. there is no real issue and he has been in the job for three years. it’s a petition gone viral with nothing to back it up.

  • The point you are missing is that are alway people who support boths sides of a government program. As a very smart EPA employee once said, when attacking the program doesn’t work, you attack the individual responsible for the program.

  • Michael

    Props to Louisa! We need good laws, sound regulations, enforcement, and for the regulators to be given the taxpayer dollars to actually carry out the job that Congress mandates (viz Congressional Budget Office estimating the need for $1.4 billion over 5 years to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act, followed by Congress only giving FDA an extra $50 million in the first year to do it). Firing people is, in most cases (Minerals Management Office prostitutes and cocaine aside), a distraction.

  • Harry Hamil

    Dr. Nestle, in your original endorsement of Mike Taylor, you wrote that only 6 weeks after taking office in 1994 his speech to the American Meat Institute announcing the E. coli O157:H7 would be considered an adulterant in ground beef “took real courage.” Really? Please tell us why. Our country had just experienced the horrific Jack in the Box outbreak in one of the ground breaking 24 hour video news coverage events. As a result, the action had broad and deep public support AND it was supported by his bosses at the USDA. Furthermore, the action affected ZERO of his former or future clients or employers. There is no evidence of any courage being required for that action.

    Also, you have regularly made it sound like this decision was Mike Taylor’s alone. How is that possible when he had only been there 6 weeks! What evidence is there that he effected a change at the FDA?

    Finally, I urge every reader to follow your link in paragraph 2 of your blog to your original post. Then scroll down to the 7th comment. In it, Denis Stearns, a senior partner at Marler Clark, wrote the following:

    “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.”

  • Margeretrc

    So Michael (and Louisa), you’re okay with throwing taxpayer money (which we don’t have) to agencies so that the members of said agency who have special interests can use that money to forward those special interests at the expense of everyone else? Hmm. I have no problem with good laws, sound regulation and enforcement, (as long as those laws and regulations actually protect us, and not some special interest group) and providing the necessary taxpayer dollars to actually carry out the job. I’m not okay with appointing people to do the job who have a financial interest in not doing everything they are supposed to do. A part of implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act should be to require labeling foods that contain ingredients that have been Genetically Modified–and testing the safety of such foods over the short and long term. You think Michael Taylor will do anything about that? If/when he actually does, I’ll eat my words. In the meantime, I remain skeptical.

  • Nancy Kaplan

    The FDA has regulatory powers over 80 percent of the food we eat. I don’t see why people are vilifying a man who by pushing the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010, is helping to bring the FDA’s regulatory tools and powers into the 21st century. I understand some peoples’ objections to genetically modified foods and why they’d want labeling to be required. They should focus their energies on accomplishing their through legislative means instead of a futile campaign to pressure the Obama administration to fire someone who has done good work for the public over a relatively short term in office.

  • Mary

    Heh–from the USAToday article:

    Taylor has been targeted because “Monsanto has become the absolute symbol of every problem with industrial agriculture, says McWilliams. “Anyone who’s associated with it is being vilified by a very vocal group.”

    I was going to say you know exactly why this is happening–the M-word. But c’mon, don’t play dumb. You condone this all the time. You let people call others “shills” all the time for anything that disagrees with organic purity. If you think it’s any different, and you aren’t complicit, you are fooling yourself.

  • I don’t see how saying that firing him would show the muscle of the anti-corporate food movement and that “there’s much to be said for that” is in line with being puzzled about why he is being targeted all of a sudden. That kind of explains it right there. Looking for a scapegoat, an icon, and a person who even those like Nestle who supported his appointment can’t even say “Stop this – you’re making us look vindictive and counter-productive.”

  • Emily

    If people really want to get things done, they should stop putting so much focus on what or who they don’t want and instead SUPPORT who/what they DO want. For example, if you don’t want this guy, who DO you want? Name that person!! Do everything you can to get them into office!!

    I completely support the idea behind getting this guy out (TOTAL conflict of interest)….but c’mon, this is not the kind of attention to bring!!!

  • Emily

    @Karl Haro von Mogel

    you said it much better than me!!!

  • Mary

    An Open Letter Regarding An Internet Smear of FDA Official Michael Taylor

  • Theresa

    “The model for revolving door mastery is Michael Taylor, who was recently appointed by President Obama as Food Safety Czar for his administration. From Marion Nestle’s book Food Politics, we learn that Michael Taylor was a lead attorney for King & Spalding, the law firm representing Monsanto after leaving his position as counsel to the FDA.

    From that private law firm, Taylor managed to return to the FDA as Deputy Commissioner for Policy in 1991. Monsanto Mike was able to influence the approval of rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone), which forces cows to yield more milk while causing infections that require antibiotics. So many milk and other dairy products became contaminated with the synthetic hormone rBGH, antibiotics, and infected cow blood and puss.

    Taylor also managed to enforce this contamination for a few years by prosecuting dairy farmers who dared label their products with “No rBGH.” This Mafioso conduct is not new to Monsanto. Farmers whose fields have been contaminated by GMO seeds or pollen from elsewhere have been prosecuted by Monsanto for patent violations.

    Learn more:

  • @Emily – actually I disagree with you on the point of removing Michael Taylor. I haven’t seen anyone present any good reason why he should be removed. My point was that Marion Nestle isn’t telling fellow foodies to stop this witch hunt – even though she disagrees with it. Instead, she is referring to it as ‘flexing their muscle’. This will be interpreted as suggesting that this is a positive thing.

    However, I do agree with you that people should focus on supporting people who they agree with and making positive messages to change where it needs to happen.

    @Theresa – Natural News is neither news, nor is it natural. I bet their servers run on electricity, too.

  • GAIA

    Nancy Kaplan
    February 19, 2012
    12:11 pm

    The FDA has regulatory powers over 80 percent of the food we eat. I don’t see why people are vilifying a man who by pushing the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010, is helping to bring the FDA’s regulatory tools and powers into the 21st century.
    That is because you have no knowledge of the “regulatory tools and powers in the 21st century”

    The FDA put in place HACCP in 1996. This program replaced government testing of food with CORPORATE testing of food and reams of paperwork. It was the ideal regulation to give the Ag giants free run and wipe-out their smaller competitors who could not handle all the paperwork as easily.

    I checked the Center for Disease Control records. Within three years of implementing HACCP the food borne disease DOUBLED!

    For the full story goggle these articles: “SHIELDING THE GIANT: USDA’s “Don’t Look, Don’t Know” Policy” and “Legislators overlook serious flaw in USDA’s HACCP food-safety”

    The New Food safety law will do nothing but drive out the small processors and farmers. Worse that darn law hands control of American Food Safety over to the World Trade Organization. This is the same organization who had Cargill’s VP, Dan Amstutz, write the Agreement on Agriculture responsible for the 2008 food riots.

    Do we really want Cargill, ADM, Monsanto, Andre and the others in the Ag Cartel writing our food regulations? Because right now that is exactly what we have.

  • jytdog

    I am shocked at the vitriol of the anti-Monsanto, anti-GMO movement and their demonization of those whom they view as their opponents. (For example, there is never an acknowledgement that Taylor may have been making a good faith effort at reasonable regulation when he was at the FDA in early 1990s. There is always an assumption that he was motivated only by a desire to benefit Monsanto.) I am almost as shocked at the refusal I find so common among them, to even try to deal objectively with the facts at hand and to deal with them in a nuanced, adult way.

    I believe there is real controversy over the risks of GM food — and there are important and reasonable points on both sides. And I understand that risk is an emotional thing. But that is no excuse for the kind of hateful talk and sloppy thinking I keep finding. I very much appreciated your initial post 3 years ago, and your honest question in this posting.

  • Darth Chaos

    Theresa, by linking to Natural News, you discredit yourself. Natural News used to be a great website which promoted healthy eating, but it has now turned into a rightwing conspiracy theory website promoting the same conspiracy theories that you see on Alex Jones’ websites.

    The moment Mike Adams became another Alex Jones, he and Natural News became irrelevant.

    With that being said, I think people should be allowed to know what’s in their food, and it’s clear that corporate agra money was influential in swaying popular opinion away from “Yes On 37”.

  • Sturgill

    GMO food is poison. Taylor protected the corporations from having to reveal that they have poisoned us. He is the equivalent of a terrorist and his damage will go on for generation. These corporate ignoramuses justify their acts by saying a little bit of poison won’t hurt you. We the people are under attack from the air we breath to the food we eat. The corporations pollute and poison in the name of greed PERIOD. The film “Genetic Roulette” spells out Monsantos greedy poisonous acts of terror.