The WaPo and the NYT are now reporting that Michael Taylor has been officially named deputy commissioner for foods at the FDA. What remains fascinating is that both articles, like Taylor’s blog post at the Atlantic, continue to ignore meat safety. It’s only mentioned in passing in the context of Taylor’s past stint as head of USDA food safety during the Clinton administration.
The WaPo’s piece even implies that Taylor all but solved problems with meat safety some 10 years ago. Meanwhile the NYT claims that this move plus new legislation that gives more power to the FDA represents the administration’s attempts to repair our “fractured” food safety system. And yet neither paper observes that Taylor’s appointment gives him no power over meat and poultry and that the food safety legislation has been stripped of any provisions that affect the meat industry. In other words, system not repaired! Very very strange. The American Meat Institute must be doing cartwheels this morning.
Michael Taylor, the FDA’s special adviser for food safety and one of the administration’s most public food safety officials, now blogs at the Atlantic. He hasn’t said much to date. But today he tried to get us all psyched for a big year for food safety:
This nation is at an historic tipping point when it comes to food safety. Congress is on the verge of passing legislation to usher in a new era of food safety in this country, with the fundamental goal of preventing food contamination and illness. The president, the public, and the industry have united in support for a stronger FDA. And our commissioner, Dr. Margaret Hamburg, has created a new Office of Foods to help unify and be accountable for all FDA foods efforts.
Awesome, right?! One problem — neither the FDA nor the pending food safety bill have anything to do with ensuring the safety of what is turning out to be our most dangerous foods: meat and poultry. That aspect of food safety is controlled by the USDA. And to paraphrase Obamafoodorama’s tweet of the other week, the USDA (and the country) has been without a head of food safety for 1 year and 25 days. Meanwhile, the revelations mount. USDA presumptions about the safety of common meat products prove horribly wrong. The tough policy decisions pile up. And yet, USDA chief Tom Vilsack refuses to put someone in charge — nor has he stepped into the breach with any meaningful reform proposals of his own.
To be clear, nowhere in Taylor’s post, which purports to be a description of food safety priorities for the entire administration, are the following words mentioned: meat, poultry, USDA, school lunches, ground beef. Even his litany of last year’s failures that will not be repeated includes only the vegetarian’s delight of peanut better, sprouts, and cookie dough. The hundreds of thousands of pounds of recalled contaminated meat go unmentioned. It’s as if meat simply is not on Michael Taylor’s menu radar.
In fact, the main priorities he discusses are all process-oriented: better communication, cooperation, preparedness, and data analysis. That’s all well and good, but are those really the greatest shortcomings for food safety in this country? Or is it rather that — thanks in large part to lax, underfunded and outdated regulations — a surprising number of corporations don’t seem to have any qualms about releasing contaminated food into the system? Let’s do something about that, shall we?
I, for one, had a theory about all this. My theory was that Taylor, being himself a former Under Secretary of Food Safety, was pulling the strings at USDA on food safety — and possibly even positioning himself to be named to the post again. But reading his blog post, now I’m not so sure. Now I’m worried that the lack of progress at USDA regarding food safety will continue — and thus continue to present a very real danger to the food system and to us. So, apologies Mike if I’m not so psyched about what 2010 will bring on food safety. I’ve had more than enough paralysis and inaction already.