mike taylorMichael TaylorIn a Tuesday afternoon press release, the FDA announced that Michael Taylor, a former Monsanto executive, had joined the agency as “senior advisor to the commissioner.” If the title is vague, the portfolio (pasted from the press release) is substantial–a kind of food czar of the Food and Drug Administration:

• Assess current food program challenges and opportunities
• Identify capacity needs and regulatory priorities
• Develop plans for allocating fiscal year 2010 resources
• Develop the FDA’s budget request for fiscal year 2011
• Plan implementation of new food safety legislation

Taylor’s new position isn’t his first in government. He’s a veteran apparatchik who has made an art of the role-swapping dance between the food industry and the agencies that regulate it. (The FDA’s press release highlights his government service while delicately omitting his Monsanto daliances.) In her 2002 book Food Politics, the nutritionist and food-industry critic Marion Nestle describes him like this (quote courtesy of La Vida Locavore):

Mr. Taylor is a lawyer who began his revolving door adventures as counsel to FDA. He then moved to King & Spalding, a private-sector law firm representing Monsanto, a leading agricultural biotechnology company. In 1991 he returned to the FDA as Deputy Commissioner for Policy, where he was part of the team that issued the agency’s decidedly industry-friendly policy on food biotechnology and that approved the use of Monsanto’s genetically engineered growth hormone in dairy cows. His questionable role in these decisions led to an investigation by the federal General Accounting Office, which eventually exonerated him of all conflict-of-interest charges. In 1994, Mr. Taylor moved to USDA to become administrator of its Food Safety and Inspection Service … After another stint in private legal practice with King & Spalding, Mr. Taylor again joined Monsanto as Vice President for Public Policy in 1998.

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“Vice president for public policy” means, of course, chief lobbyist. Monsanto had hired him to keep his former colleagues at USDA and FDA, as well as Congress folk, up to date on the wonders of patent-protected seed biotechnology.

“Since 2000,” the FDA press release informs us, “Taylor has worked in academic and research settings on the challenges facing the nation’s food safety system and ways to address them.”

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Watchdog in flack’s clothing?

And somewhere along the away, according to his erstwhile critic Nestle, Taylor had a moment like Saul’s on the road to Damascus: the one-time company man suddenly became a valorous industry watchdog. In a surprising blog post Tuesday, Nestle declared Taylor “a good pick” for the FDA. “I say this in full knowledge of his history,” Nestle wrote. Here’s her rationale:

Watch what happened when he moved to USDA in 1994 as head of its Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Just six weeks after taking the job, Mr. Taylor gave his first public speech to an annual convention of the American Meat Institute. There, he announced that USDA would now be driven by public health goals as much or more than by productivity concerns. The USDA would soon require science-based HACCP systems in every meat and poultry plant, would be testing raw ground beef, and would require contaminated meat to be destroyed or reprocessed. And because E. coli O157.H7 is infectious at very low doses, the USDA would consider any level of contamination of ground beef with these bacteria to be unsafe, adulterated, and subject to enforcement action. Whew. This took real courage.

Nestle goes on to report that Taylor, after serving a stint as Monsanto’s chief lobbyist, became a kind of food-safety intellectual, issuing wise papers on how the regulators should oversee food companies. She points us to an “excellent report” [PDF] co-written by Taylor, released this year.

That paper must be read carefully: Given Taylor’s new status, it–along with new guidelines released by the White House Food Safety Working on Tuesday–will likely serve as a kind of blueprint for the Obama FDA food oversight.

Two things jump out immediately from Taylor’s paper. First, it amounts to a forceful push to shift much more of the burden for funding food-safety operations to the state and local level. Its very title is “An Agenda for Strengthening State and Local Roles in the Nation’s Food Safety System.” The paper promotes a “Joint Funding Responsibility” between federal and local/state agencies.

Why is this a problem? For one, state and local budgets are parched dry, drained by the most severe economic downturn since the Depression. Is, say, California now going to fund a robust food-safety platform–with IOUs, perhaps?

Moreover, we’ve seen the sort of federal-state partnership Taylor promotes in action–and there have been spectacular failures. Remember the great peanut-butter calamity of 2008-’09, the one that killed at least seven people and sickened hundreds? In that case, the FDA had farmed out inspections of the ofending factory to Georgia authorities, who dutifully documented atrocious sanitary lapses even as tainted product got distributed nationwide.

The other immediate problem with Taylor’s blueprint relates to scale. A sane food-safety policy would do two things: 1) rein in the gigantic companies that routinely endanger millions with a single lapse at a single plant–say, a gigantic beef company that can send out 420,000 pounds of E. coli-tainted beef from a day’s processing; and 2) do so in a way that doesn’t harm the thousands of small-scale, community-oriented operations rising up in new alternative food systems.

Again and again, we’ve seen regulations designed to rein in big players actually consolidate their market power by wiping out small players. As a recent Food & Water Watch report showed, regulations that make sense for industrial slaughterhouses can spell the end for community- and regional-scale ones. The Taylor report only addresses this critical point once in its 80 pages: “Due regard should be given to making the traceback requirement feasible for small businesses.” Clearly, the small-scale producer issue isn’t a priority for Monsanto’s man at FDA.

A technocrat’s tinkering

With the widely respected Marion Nestle throwing her support behind the Taylor pick, I went looking for other perspectives. I asked Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, for her take. FWW has been actively working to promote a scale-appropriate food-safety regime that checks Big Food without crushing small producers.

Lovera does not share Nestle’s enthusiasm. “Taylor basically promotes a risk-based approach, and we don’t think that’s adequate,” she told me. Lovera explained that in a risk-based approach, regulators focus limited resources on areas of the food system that pose the most risk. Sounds logical, she said, but it’s proven difficult to predict where risk factors really lie. I asked her if the peanut-butter debacle was a good example. Who would have foreseen multiple deaths from a factory that produces peanut paste for processed food manufacturers? She concurred. She added that the USDA’s FSIS program, which oversees meat safety, has largely failed in a 10-year effort to identify the riskiest parts of the meat-production process.

Then there’s the emphasis on what Nestle praised in her blog post as “science-based HACCP systems.” HACCP stands for “hazard analysis and critical control point.” In an HACCP system, you identify the points in a process that pose the most risk and “fix” the problem.

“That approach is really geared to techno fixes,” Lovera told me–stuff like ammonia washes, irradiation, etc. These procedures don’t seek to, say, keep salmonella-tainted peanut butter out of cookies, but rather to make salmonella-exposed cookies safe to eat. Moreover, the HACCP approach “hasn’t proven friendly to small producers,” she adds. To see the Obama FDA appear to embrace it, she told me, “makes us cringe.” In the end, the food safety system doesn’t just need to tinker with the use of scarce resources, leveraged by increasing the burden on states and localities. It needs to devote more resources to actual inspections.

As for Taylor, here’s my take: Despite massive marketing budgets, the food industry has become widely distrusted over the last several years, with high-profile outbreaks a major reason. “Consumers are increasingly wary of the safety of food purchased at grocery stores,” declares a recent study. “And their confidence in–and trust of–food retailers, manufacturers and grocers is declining.”

The industry knows it needs an improved safety system; technocrats like Taylor can deliver a marginally improved food safety system while preserving profit margins and market share.

Perhaps the FDA’s new food czar can save some lives–I hope he does. It’s abominable when people die from eating pre-fab peanut butter cookie or salad from a bag. Taylor’s tinkerings could well reduce such disasters.

But what we really need is a food safety system that takes the shit out of industrial meat and the salmonella out of peanut butter, without dumping on small producers. And I don’t think Taylor will deliver that–or even try.