A top U.S. regulator’s ties to Monsanto Co., a maker of genetically modified food, are fueling an election-year recall push by consumer and public-interest groups flexing their clout on the Internet.
Michael Taylor, the Food and Drug Administration’s deputy commissioner for food safety, is at the center of a burgeoning dispute between opponents who have amassed more than 420,000 signatures on an online petition demanding he be fired and supporters who praise his efforts to curb foodborne illnesses.
At issue are the 16 months ending in 2000 that Taylor worked as St. Louis-based Monsanto’s vice president for public policy, between stints in the Clinton and Obama administrations. The petition reflects anger over the agency’s enforcement actions against small food producers and products such as raw milk and may prove embarrassing to a White House eager to distance itself from corporate interests, said Marion Nestle, a New York University professor.
Taylor is “a flashpoint for a lot of distrust about federal regulation,” said Nestle, a professor of nutrition at the Manhattan-based school. “The FDA is perceived as going after small farmers and leaving the larger ones alone. The White House doesn’t want the FDA making an issue that will cause trouble during an election year.”
Taylor’s broad expertise, including his experience in industry, benefits the agency, Siobhan Delancey, an FDA spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail. Before Taylor worked at Monsanto, he served in the administration of then President Bill Clinton as the FDA’s deputy commissioner for policy from 1991 to 1994.
During his time at Monsanto, Taylor worked to improve transparency, leaving when “it became clear that the company’s management was not unified in its commitment to making such a change,” Delancey said in the e-mail.
Monsanto produces a wide range of seeds and biotechnology products with traits that help farmers control pests, and are sold to other agricultural producers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is primarily responsible for regulating genetically modified crops and consults with the FDA on whether the products are substantially equivalent to what exists in nature.
The online petition, along with others circulated on Facebook and other social-media sites since at least August, blames Taylor for allowing genetically modified organisms into the U.S. food supply without requiring testing as to their effects while he served at the agency in the 1990s.
Taylor’s “legacy of supporting Monsanto to have free rein in U.S. food policy is a nightmare scenario,” the petition states.
Food from genetically-modified crops is as safe as conventional food, according to Monsanto’s website.
“Hundreds of millions of meals containing food from GM crops have been consumed,” according to the website. “There has not been a single substantiated instance of illness or harm associated with GM crops.”
Taylor, in an interview, said his work is misrepresented, and the effort to have him fired “is more about Monsanto than about me. The claim is I was a Monsanto lobbyist, which paints a bad picture,” he said. “It doesn’t say what I did there or what I think about biotechnology.”
Taylor said he focused on outreach to biotech stakeholders and improving transparency about the company’s work.
Spokesmen for Monsanto declined to speak specifically about Taylor’s role, instead pointing to a company statement Monsanto’s website that rejects the idea of collusion among regulators and the industry.
“The public and private sectors benefit when employers have access to the most competent and experienced people,” Monsanto says on its website. Accusations of the “revolving door” leading to beneficial treatment “ignore the simple truth that people regularly change jobs to find positions that match their experience, skills and interests.”
Taylor didn’t lobby for the company, the FDA’s Delancey said. In his current post since January 2010, he’s also recused himself from involvement in issues related to animal and plant biotechnology that may create an appearance of conflict, she said.
Taylor has garnered praise from food-safety advocates for efforts to curb foodborne illnesses. Supporters circulated a letter in February calling the attacks “a factually untrue Internet smear campaign.”
He’s been a proactive regulator, strengthening restrictions on strains of E. coli in meat instead of just reacting to outbreaks, according to the letter signed by members of the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, and others such as Bill Marler, a Seattle-based food safety lawyer.
“If we want to complain about policy at FDA, take it up with his boss who’s up for election,” Marler said in an interview, referring to President Barack Obama. “In my dealings, Mike Taylor’s open and accessible.”
The petition is “terribly irresponsible,” said Michael Jacobson, the center’s executive director. “It’s an attack on government in general. They’re using Mike Taylor as a straw man to attack genetically modified foods. They picked the wrong straw man.”
Genetically modified food has been grown for more than 15 years and has been extensively tested by third parties, Lee Quarles, a Monsanto spokesman, said in an interview.
“The benefits of biotech are well established, as are the safety records of these products,” he said, adding that it’s one tool to help feed the growing world population.
Nestle said the FDA sided with agriculture and biotech interests by not requiring genetically modified food to be labeled as such in the 1990s. A petition calling on the FDA to require producers to label the products -- known as the Just Label It campaign -- has garnered about 850,000 responses with a goal of 1 million within months.
Taylor has addressed labeling genetically modified products in the past. The European Union has embraced labeling as a way to allow consumers to identify such items, he noted in a 2003 article in Nature Biotechnology.
“By adopting a choice-based agenda, the U.S. can remake its leadership on biotechnology,” Taylor wrote, adding that agriculture and biotech companies that oppose choice by aggressively marketing the technology are “on the wrong side.”
“As with any new food technology, to be accepted, consumers feel the need to have a choice,” Taylor said, adding that any personal opinion is irrelevant since he recuses himself from decisions on genetically modified food.
Implementing Safety Law
Taylor said he is focused on implementation of the Food Modernization Safety Act, which Obama signed last year and marks the most sweeping reform to food safety laws in more than 70 years. Proposals are expected shortly that will set minimum standards for the safe production and harvest of fruits and vegetables. A proposal that designates high-risk foods subject to more requirements is also pending.
Nestle said Taylor’s future may hinge on whether Obama’s FDA is seen as beholden to corporate interests.
“It depends on how big and noisy this gets,” she said. “The question is, will it cause trouble for Obama? If it does, he’s gone. If not, he’ll stay. He comes with a lot of baggage.”