FDA's Surprisingly Good Choice

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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.

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.

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.

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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