Welcome, Mike Taylor

By Corby Kummer

This morning we have the first of what I hope will be frequent updates from Michael Taylor, a senior adviser to Margaret Hamburg, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. As our Marion Nestle wrote to hail his appointment:

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 first met Taylor and heard him speak at a conference at MIT for Knight fellows in science journalism, at which he described frankly the past 15 years or so of work the USDA and FDA had done both with and without his consultation: he has previously worked at both agencies and also, as Nestle noted, at Monsanto. I knew as soon as I heard his lucid, reasonable, forceful talk that I wanted to hear from him on the Food Channel, and cheered when he returned to the FDA.

Already the agency is taking bold positions many would argue it should have taken years ago, years when it has lacked the funding to do what many both inside and outside the agency wanted it to--particularly to ensure food safety, and put in place the teeth to enforce regulation.

Along with the crucial business of food safety, Margaret Hamburg is setting a new tone at the agency regarding straightforward and easily comprehensible nutrition information exactly where people need it--on the label. The success of the standardized calorie, portion, sodium, fat, and other nutritional information on labels has given to rise to claims on boxes that need sorting and pruning. As Taylor says in his debut post, the commissioner and he intend to do that sorting and pruning. The kind of claims that the industry made in its Smart Choices program, which Nestle took the lead in what became wide ridicule--in her typically abashed way, she said of her own opinion, "Mine is that the Smart Choices program is a travesty and the sooner it disappears, the better"--will be a thing of the past. Industry will work in concert with the FDA to straighten out and make consistent the information rushed shoppers get.

That's one of only a few programs--some long-term, many urgently short-term--that Taylor, Hamburg, and their colleagues deal with all day and often night long at the agency. I'm really, really pleased that we'll be getting to hear some of their reports as they face those problems head on.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/11/welcome-mike-taylor/30651/