WASHINGTON, April 6, 2016 - An era that has seen some of the biggest advances in U.S. food safety reaches a new milestone with Michael Taylor’s departure from the Food and Drug Administration, where he is deputy commissioner of foods, in charge of regulating 80 percent of the food supply.

Over a span of more than two decades, Taylor has been a driving force in a series of historic changes in food safety that started when he was put in charge of regulating meat safety for USDA after a devastating 1993 E. coli outbreak linked to burgers sold by Jack in the Box restaurants.

He will leave FDA at the end of May after overseeing development of a sweeping set of farm-to-fork rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act that will regulate everything from the way that farmers irrigate and fertilize fruit and vegetable crops to the way that cookies, soup and even pasta and pet soup is manufactured and transported domestically and overseas.

Ask Taylor about his accomplishments and he points back to those first months at USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service in the wake of the E. coli outbreak that killed four children and sickened more than 700 people nationwide. At the time, there was a mindset at USDA that food safety was primarily the consumers’ responsibility, not industry’s, Taylor said in an interview with Agri-Pulse.

“You had a system at USDA that … did not include accountability for reducing or preventing pathogens on the premise that consumers were supposed to cook their food, and therefore it was their responsibility.”

Taylor took steps to force the beef industry to get rid of the pathogen, instead of relying on consumers to kill it by cooking. He declared the strain linked to the outbreak, O157, as an adulterant, which would make it illegal for meat contaminated with the bacteria to be sold.

In an equally historic move, he led a broader effort to get the meat industry to implement preventive controls, known by the acronym HACCP, that require companies to identify likely pathogens and take steps to ensure that their products aren’t contaminated. The HACCP concept would later become embodied in the FSMA rules that Taylor oversaw development of under the Obama administration at FDA. Such controls will now be required for production of all foods, not just meat, which FSIS regulates, but also livestock feed and pet food.

“We shifted to a place now where theres alignment around the fundamental need” for the “government and industry to focus on prevention, for there to be public accountability for prevention,” Taylor says.

He goes on: “It’s not that everybody in the food system is at the highest level of performance. There’s certainly a spectrum of performers, as there is in any system, but those shifts are profoundly important, and I think they have made a difference for food safety.”

It can be difficult to link the impact of regulations to pathogen reduction, in part because scientific advancements have made it much easier to pinpoint the causes of foodborne illnesses and to link them to outbreaks. But USDA testing does show a sharp drop in E. coli contamination in ground beef, and the nation’s most prominent food-safety lawyer, Bill Marler, says his caseload provides evidence that the steps that Taylor initiated have made beef safer.

“I have one case in my office linked to O157. One. I used to have 50,” Marler said, adding that another tipping point came in 2003, long after Taylor left FSIS: a massive, 19-million-pound ConAgra recall that forced the industry to take new steps to combat E. coli.

USDA, which samples raw beef samples each year to track the pathogen, reported nine positives for E. coli O157 last year, compared to 59 in 2001, the first year for which data are available. So far this year, USDA has reported a single positive test nationwide for the bacteria.

Taylor’s hiring at FDA in 2009 was met with outrage from many anti-GMO activists because of a 16-month stint that he did at Monsanto Co. in the late 1990s after leaving FSIS. Taylor has recused himself from working on biotech issues while at FDA because of his past work for Monsanto and doesn’t discuss Monsanto in interviews, a spokesman said. But Taylor has said that while serving as vice president for policy at Monsanto, he privately urged the company to support labeling GMOs.

He argued publicly for biotech labeling in a 2003 article for Nature Biotechnology, saying that it was important for the industry to be seen as allowing consumers to choose whether to buy the products. “Nothing could be more destructive of trust in the technology and its promoters than for them to be on the wrong side of the choice issue,” he wrote.

He told Agri-Pulse that the issue of consumer trust continues to be at the core of the heightened public concern about food, which is reflected in issues ranging from gluten to GMOs. The government’s role is to provide a basic assurance of safety. “It’s not for FDA to set direction for the food system when it comes to what food is like. That’s between the people who make the food and the people who buy it. We have the role of assuring it’s safe and properly labeled. Let the chips fall where they may in the marketplace.”

No segment of the food system has seen a bigger change in its relationship to the government during Taylor’s tenure than agriculture. In addition to the new FSMA regulations for fresh produce, farmers also are being prosecuted for the first time for foodborne illnesses.

Two Colorado brothers were sentenced to five years' probation in connection with a 2011 listeria outbreak that was traced to their cantaloupes. In Iowa, longtime egg producer Austin “Jack” DeCoster and his son were given jail time over a 2010 salmonella outbreak.

Taylor said such prosecutions will continue to be “a rare, a relatively rare, event,” but he said it’s important to hold farmers accountable for the safety of their products. “By and large, the last thing they (farmers) want to do is egregiously violate or hurt people,” he said. 

Taylor received high marks for altering the produce rule in response to farmers’ complaints that the proposed standards for water and manure were too costly. Taylor personally toured a number of farms both before and after the original rule was altered.

Debbie Hamrick, director of specialty crops for the North Carolina Farm Bureau, led Taylor on a tour of farms in her state and was also invited to speak to a group of FDA officials in Washington. Taylor made sure that farmers’ concerns were reflected in developing the final regulations, she said. “He’s been a beacon of pragmatism and common sense,” she said.

Taylor will be replaced in June as deputy commissioner for foods by Stephen Ostroff, who served as acting FDA commissioner for nearly a year until the Senate confirmed Robert Califf to the position in February.

As for Taylor, he intends to take a couple of months off but eventually plans to turn his focus overseas to work with NGOs to improve food safety and food security in the developing world. The “interests of growers, of the retailers, of the governments who care about development, of the public health people who care about food safety, it all has to come together to get food system success,” he said.


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