With big changes to the nation's food safety system looming in 2010, the FDA made a strange move earlier this week when it appointed former Monsanto lobbyist Michael Taylor to lead the agency's fight against contaminated peanut butter and lethal lettuce. Taylor was named to the new post of deputy commissioner for food.
Taylor, who has circled three times between government and industry, isn't the sort of person you'd expect to see issuing orders in the Obama FDA. The last time he was at the FDA, the agency created several policies on genetically modified foods that no one would ever call consumer-friendly. (Which is perhaps why the FDA staffer who wrote Taylor's bio seems to have all-but-forgotten his decade-plus of Monsanto work.)
Is this time around going to be different? Real and substantial changes to food safety aren't going to happen without ruffling a few feathers in the food industry. Is Taylor the guy to stand firm in the face of the inevitable lobbying assault? You hope so, but there isn't much in his record to suggest it.
There's little doubt that Taylor is an expert in both food safety and food regulation. Even his critics will grant that. He once ran the USDA's food safety program and has spent years studying the issue. Taylor says he is ready to get tough on food safety and that 2010 will be a "groundbreaking year."
But here's where that claim runs up against the past. While Taylor was the FDA's policy chief in the early 1990s, the agency approved genetically modified crops and bovine growth hormone for cows, new technologies that both benefited Monsanto enormously. And FDA rules stated that both GM foods and bovine growth hormone would not need labeling to let consumers know when it was appearing in their food.
But that's not all. As a lobbyist, Taylor argued against the Delaney Clause, one of the foundations of food safety regulation that prohibits cancer-causing chemicals to be added to food. Even some of Taylor's food safety achievements don't look so great. HACCP, a safety system he championed while at the USDA, is essentially a program in which the industry gets to regulate itself.
It's true that Taylor has been out over the last few months promoting a plan to ban Gulf Coast oysters that are not treated with antimicrobial technology. But taking on the mostly small, unorganized oyster community isn't exactly standing up to Cargill or Tyson Foods. And Taylor didn't stand up to the small guys for very long anyway.
The FDA desperately needs someone who will address the systemic issues in our food production system that cause people to become horribly ill from merely eating their lunch. Think overproduction, overly crowded animal feeding operations and very little traceability. But is Taylor going to create real change or simply champion band aid approaches (irradiation, ammonia treatments) on a broken system? Anyone who cares about eating safe food should stay tuned.
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