July 8, 2009 The Pump Handle 6Comment

Several months ago, I attended presentation by Michael Taylor, a former FDA deputy commissioner for policy who’d recently become a professor here at the George Washington University’s School of Public Health. Taylor’s presentation, “Building a Prevention-Oriented Food Safety System: FDA’s Challenge and Opportunity,” explained why it’s so hard to ensure that our nation’s food supply is safe; factors range from the complexity and variety of food products to the fragmented regulatory structure for food. I remember that during the Q&A, someone brought up “the egg rule,” and it prompted groans and eye-rolling from the food-safety experts in the room – apparently, it was a prime example of bureaucratic paralysis.

Yesterday, Vice President Biden unveiled a series of new measures to improve food safety, beginning with the long-awaited egg rule – and the FDA announced that Michael Taylor will serve as Senior Adviser to the Commissioner on food issues. According to the agency’s news release, he will:

  • 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

In terms of food program challenges, capacity needs, and regulatory priorities, Kristen Perosino’s post about Taylor’s GW presentation gives a sense of his thinking: 

In a recent seminar at George Washington University, former FDA deputy commissioner for policy Michael Taylor discussed the agency’s role in food safety.  He noted that FDA has food safety expertise and a well-trained field force with a science-based approach to food inspection.  FDA remains the international gold standard for food safety.  However, the agency lacks a mandate for prevention (which Taylor cites as the fundamental problem), limiting the agency to a reactive rather than preventive approach to food safety.  FDA is also challenged by internal fragmentation (responsibilities are distributed among the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the Center for Veterinary Medicine, and the Office of Regulatory Affairs), declining staff, and a limited capacity to provide leadership on food safety.  Oh, did I mention resource shortages?  This is the agency that regulates 80% of the U.S. food supply, but receives one-third of the federal food safety budget.

Food policy expert Marion Nestle (author of What to Eat, Food Politics, and Safe Food) has already weighed in on Taylor. She explains that she knows that he worked for Monsanto between jobs with FDA and USDA, but she supports him for this position nonetheless:

But before you decide that I must have drunk the Kool Aid on this one, hear me out. He really is a good choice for this job. Why? Because he managed to get USDA to institute HACCP (science-based food safety regulations) for meat and poultry against the full opposition of the meat industry — a truly heroic accomplishment. His position on food safety has been strong and consistent for years. He favors a single food agency, HACCP for all foods, and accountability and enforcement. We need this for FDA-regulated foods (we also need enforcement for USDA-regulated foods, but he won’t be able to touch that unless Congress says so). So he’s the person most likely to be able to get decent regulations in place and get them enforced.

Here’s her description of how Taylor pushed the public health agenda at USDA, which is responsible for the safety of meat:

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.

The amazing thing is that he actually made this work. Now, HACCP rules apply more to USDA-regulated products than to FDA-regulated products. This new appointment gives Mr. Taylor the chance to bring FDA’s policies in line with USDA’s and even more, to make sure they are monitored and enforced.

Fixing our food safety system won’t simple – there are thousands of different stakeholders involved, and Congress may not like the idea of reorganizing agencies’ food responsibilities and finding the resources required to do the job right. Best of luck to Michael Taylor in his new position!

6 thoughts on “Michael Taylor to Tackle Food Safety at FDA

  1. John Snow is the epidemiologist behind the name of this blog. During the London cholera epidemic of 1854, he examined maps of cholera cases and traced the disease to water from a local pump. At the time, the prevailing theory held that cholera spread through the air, rather than water, so Snow faced criticism from others in the science community – not to mention resistance from the water companies. He finally convinced community leaders to remove the pump’s handle to prevent further exposure.

  2. Oh, that John Snow!

    Thanks for not pointing out how stupid was my question, on this blog.

    I don’t get over here enough, that’s clear.

    But while we’re on the subject: I was disappointed to discover that John Snow and the story of the pump handle are not included in world history texts — I think it’s an outstanding example of the employment of innovative ideas to make the world better.

    Is there a very good book that cover’s Snow’s work? Maybe even better, is there a good children’s book with pictures to steal?

    Thursday afternoon I participated in an institute class on AP U.S. history. Specifically on the topic of technology and invention, and with a focus on the conflicts or triumphs of science especially medicine and biology, I discovered that the prepared material said little about public health. We had a great discussion when it was pointed out that clean water and sewer systems make civilization possible.

    We need to do more to make the history of public health known.

  3. Not only is John Snow left out of history books, he’s left out of medical text books. I went to medical school but I never heard of him until I went back and got an MPH. I bet that a majority of doctors don’t know what he accomplished. That’s probably because his contribution was in epidemiology, not bacteriology.
    I don’t know of any children’s books about John Snow, but there’s a book, The Ghost Map, by Stephen Jonson, a popular science writer, that chronicles the London cholera epidemic but also examines the contributions of water and sanitation in Public Health.
    Johnson, Steven (2006). The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World. Riverhead Books. pp. 206. ISBN 1-59448-925-4.

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