By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 14, 2010; A17
A year ago, Michael Taylor was sitting in his office at George Washington University, considering a basic mission of the federal government: making sure food is safe. He'd devoted his career to food safety, working in and out of government, and he was finally in academia where he could think deeply about what was wrong and how to fix it.
And then the call came.
The Obama administration wanted Taylor to implement the solutions he had been designing. A string of food poisoning outbreaks nationally had sickened thousands and killed dozens. Both parties in Congress were calling for tough new laws. The president promised the public that he would strengthen food safety.
In July, Taylor became an adviser to Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, and Wednesday he was named deputy commissioner for foods, a new position that elevates food in an agency long criticized for placing greater emphasis on drugs and medical devices.
Congress is moving ahead with legislation to grant vast new authority to the FDA to ensure food safety -- the House passed a bill last year and the Senate is expected to take up its version soon -- and Taylor will be responsible for implementing new laws aimed at preventing outbreaks instead of merely reacting after they occur.
"We are at an historic tipping point -- a moment when the forces have aligned like never before; the president, Congress, industry and the public have stepped up their support for our mission," Taylor told a gathering of FDA staff members last month.
Taylor is a familiar figure at the FDA. He began his career as a staff attorney at the agency in 1976. Then he worked for a decade at King & Spaulding, which represented Monsanto Corp., the agribusiness giant that developed genetically engineered corn, soybeans and bovine growth hormone.
He returned to the FDA in 1991 as deputy commissioner for policy and pushed through requirements that producers of seafood and juices adopt measures to prevent bacterial contamination. During the same period, the FDA approved Monsanto's bovine growth hormone, and Taylor was partly responsible for a controversial policy that said milk from BGH-treated cows did not have to be labeled as such.
In 1994, Taylor went to the U.S. Agriculture Department to run its food-safety program. He required meat and poultry producers to take measures to prevent bacterial contamination, despite strong opposition from those industries. Observers expect Taylor to impose those same kinds of preventive controls on all the foods regulated by the FDA.
After the USDA, Taylor went to work for Monsanto as a vice president for public policy. He moved on to a think tank and then a teaching stint at GWU.
"He is the quintessential revolving door," said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. Taylor's support for BGH and Monsanto's other genetically modified products at the FDA was "questionable," she said. "On the other hand, when he went to USDA, what he did there was absolutely heroic. He's been very strong on food safety."
It's one thing to recognize the weak spots and craft a strategy for change; it's another to make it happen and persuade 3,000 FDA employees who work on food issues to follow suit.
"This is really about building a new system," he said. "It's about rethinking how we do everything -- from inspections to rulemaking -- so that we're acting in real time in a way that is preventive."
To that end, Taylor has been bringing together divisions to make the agency more nimble. Food regulation is split among the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, where much of the scientific research takes place; the Center for Veterinary Medicine, which regulates the manufacture and sale of food additives and drugs for animals; and the Office of Regulatory Affairs, which handles inspections of domestic and imported products and works with state and local officials.
Traditionally, the three sections were managed separately. Any proposed policy change had to be approved by each division and then was sent for review by the general counsel in the commissioner's office. It took years to get anything done, Taylor said.
Now, Taylor has pulled together a senior leadership team that cuts across the three divisions and has created similar cross-sectional teams to work on core issues. "The idea is to get the best thinking on the table early," he said.
Taylor has already taken some steps that suggest a new, more muscular approach to regulation. The agency has been cracking down on nutrition claims on processed foods, saying that some food makers have overstated the health benefits of their products.
In the first real political test of the new leadership, Taylor tried to ban the sale of raw oysters harvested from the Gulf Coast between April and October unless they are treated to kill a potentially lethal bacterium. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and others vigorously protested the move. The FDA agreed to put off action to study the issue. Taylor said the agency is not backing down, just regrouping.