Who’s In Charge of Food Safety And What Is He Doing About It?

August 27, 2010

By Terry Smiljanich:

The latest outbreak of salmonella illnesses (2000 reports between May and July), traced to contaminated eggs from two major Iowa producers and involving more than half a billion eggs, raises once again the issue of food safety in America. Who’s in charge?

Until recently, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) had exclusive jurisdiction over inspection of egg producing facilities. Once eggs entered the marketplace, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had authority to investigate any problems. That has all changed under new rules, effective July 9, 2010, giving the FDA authority to inspect food production facilities along with the USDA.

On July 9 the FDA issued new regulations, “Prevention of Salmonella Enteritidis in Shell Eggs During Production, Storage and Transportation.” This new “Egg Safety Action Plan” requires increased supervision and inspection of eggs during all stages from production to consumer delivery.

The FDA’s emergency coordinator for its Center for Food Safety claims that had the new rules been in effect before July 9, this particular salmonella outbreak “could have been prevented.”

Let’s take a look at the “new and improved” federal food safety program and, particularly, at the man on top, hand picked by President Obama to be our new “Food Safety Czar.”

The Office of Foods

Last year, the President appointed Michael R. Taylor as special assistant to the FDA Commissioner for food safety, and asked him to help revamp our food safety programs. As a result, the “Office of Foods” was created, with Taylor as head of the new FDA section, which contains three departments:

  1. The Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition;
  2. The Center for Veterinary Medicine; and
  3. The Office of Regulatory Affairs (field force).

The goal of the new office is to involve the FDA more directly in food safety and field inspections. Michael Taylor has stated that with this new organization, and with the new rules promulgated to enhance FDA’s authority in this field, America’s food safety should improve.

Who Is Michael Taylor?

MoveOn.org, an activist progressive PAC, lists the appointment of Michael Taylor as “Food Safety Czar” as one of the current “top ten corporate outrages.” (MoveOn.org is no stranger to controversy – remember the outrage over its “General Betray-Us” attack on General Petraeus?). It points out that Michael Taylor was the same FDA official back in the Clinton Administration who approved the use of Monsanto’s genetically engineered Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH) to improve dairy cow milk production, and who then went on to work for Monsanto during the Bush years. As MoveOn.org points out, BGH is “banned in most countries and linked to cancer.”

A closer look at Michael Taylor, however, paints a much more complicated picture. Mr. Taylor is an attorney who has devoted his entire career to food safety policy. He served as an FDA and USDA staff member, as a research professor on food safety policy, and in industry as a vice president at Monsanto, one of the world’s largest agricultural corporations. He served as Administrator of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), at that time the top agency dealing directly with food safety issues.

It is Mr. Taylor’s connection with Monsanto that has primarily concerned his critics, particularly with regard to concerns about the safety of its product “Posilac,” a synthetic BGH, widely used by many dairy farmers to boost production of milk.  Taylor has also served as a partner in the major law firm, King and Spalding, where Monsanto was one of his clients.

Taylor has testified, however, that based on his prior involvement with Monsanto before working for the government during the Posilac approval process, he recused himself from all discussions of Posilac and “never sought to influence the thrust or content” of the governmental policies implemented.

Posilac, a synthetic Bovine Growth Hormone

Posilac is a genetically engineered hormone, identical to the natural BGH produced by dairy cows. It is referred to as rBGH, to denote it as a “recombinant” (genetic engineering) form of natural BGH. Since its introduction into the market, Posilac has come under severe criticism as having potentially adverse human health impacts such as introduction of increased insulin-like growth factors in humans, possible links to cancer, and the presence of increased antibiotics in milk from cows administered BGH (injection of BGH causes infection problems in cows, thus leading to increased use of antibiotics in such cows). As MoveOn.org points out, many countries ban the use of BGH in milk production.

Citing several scientific studies, Mr. Taylor’s office approved the use of Posilac in 1993, which is still in use in America. After leaving government service in the 90’s, Taylor went on to become Vice President for Public Policy at Monsanto. Posilac was a major product sold by Monsanto in all 50 states. It is currently a brand owned by Elanco USA, a division of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company.

Michael Taylor’s move to Monsanto has been widely cited as an example of the “revolving door” problem in federal government – senior government employees leaving federal service and accepting high paying jobs with the very companies they used to regulate, whether in pharmaceuticals, the military-industrial complex, or energy, to name but a few. Taylor’s employer, Monsanto, went so far as to sue organic dairy farmers who began to advertise that their products were “hormone free” or “synthetic BGH free.” The settlement included new wording on the label of such milk products that no difference has been found between such products and those from BGH-treated cows.

Are Synthetic BGH Criticisms Valid?

There have in fact been several studies showing no significant impact on human health from consumption of milk products from BGH-treated cows. It is true that some increased insulin-like growth factors in humans have been noted, but at levels not considered a danger. Despite this, the American Medical Association is concerned enough that it has recommended that hospitals serve milk from dairies that do not use BGH injections.

What about the links to cancer? No definitive study has demonstrated any such link, and the American Cancer Society has not recommended against its use. It has concluded that no link to cancer has been shown, but that the antibiotic question “remains a concern.”

What about the fact that Posilac has been banned in many countries, including Canada and the members of the European Union? Even this criticism is not as simple as it seems. As it turns out, in the countries where Posilac and synthetic BGH have been banned, milk production and milk prices are heavily regulated or subsidized by the central government, and there is no desire to upset the balance between supply and demand by allowing some farmers to increase production artificially.

Is Michael Taylor the Right Guy?

Given his office’s involvement with the approval of Monsanto’s Posilac, and the controversies surrounding its use in this country, it is certainly understandable that Michael Taylor’s appointment by President Obama has come under some fire.

On the other hand, given Mr. Taylor’s background in law, government administration and regulation, teaching and industry, all of it devoted to food safety policy, he is arguably well qualified to take over a major new government program involved with food safety.

The “revolving door” issue is, frankly, difficult pin down. Certainly, being involved in government decision making that greatly profits a particular company, and then going to work for that same company, is extremely troublesome and raises legitimate questions about the original governmental decisions. It is also true, however, that when someone with a very specialized competence leaves government service, one cannot expect him or her to suddenly switch fields and go to work doing something unrelated to the former specialty.

Food safety is an important function of government. We expect our food to be as safe as possible. Michael Taylor is in the top food safety position in government, and promises better regulations and inspections to help prevent such problems as the current salmonella contamination of eggs from certain producers. Time will tell whether we see the promised improvements.