A (Qualified) Defense of Mike Taylor, the FDA's Food Safety Lead

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Various groups are calling on the FDA to "fire Monsanto Mike," but give Taylor a chance to reduce outbreaks like he did at the USDA.

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USA Today has picked up the various Internet petitions -- SignOn, FoodDemocracyNow, CredoAction, etc. -- to fire Mike Taylor, the head food safety person at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

When the FDA hired Mike Taylor nearly three years ago, I wrote a long post reviewing his complicated employment history: Monsanto, the FDA, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Monsanto, private sector, university, the FDA -- a classic example of the revolving door.

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

But at the 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 the 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 the 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?

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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This post originally appeared on Food Politics, an Atlantic partner site.

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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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