Obama's Administration: Appointments From Industry Ranks

Recently the Obama administration appointed Michael Taylor to serve as the senior advisor to the commissioner of the FDA for food safety. It is also rumored that Pennsylvania’s Agriculture Secretary, Dennis Wolff, would be selected for the position of the Under-Secretary of Agriculture for Food Safety. Consumer group advocates are ringing the alarm bells as both of these men are seen as being deeply rooted in the industry and there are serious concerns as to whether they will represent consumer’s interests in their positions (or, at a minimum, be objective and cautious).

Michael Taylor

There are several ways one could interpret Michael Taylor’s professional history. According to his biography, Mr. Taylor began his career as an attorney for the FDA, then went to a law firm that represented Monsanto (a chemical company, which, among other things, is a major GMO producer), returned to the FDA/USDA and then went back to Monsanto to serve as a Vice-President for Public Policy. Recently, Mr. Taylor served as a Senior Fellow at the Resources for the Future. The Organic Consumers Association (“OCA”), reports that Mr. Taylor is widely credited with ushering Monsanto’s recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) through the FDA regulatory process and into the milk supply — unlabeled. A Government Accounting Office (GAO) investigated whether Mr. Taylor had a conflict of interest and/or had engaged in ethical misconduct in the approval of rBGH. The report’s conclusion that there was no wrongdoing is believed by many to conflict with the 30 pages of evidence that Vermont Congressman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) described as proof that “the FDA allowed corporate influence to run rampant in its approval” of the rBGH.

The OCA further reports that Mr. Taylor is responsible for the FDA’s decision to treat genetically modified organisms as “substantially equivalent” to natural foods and therefore not require any safety studies. Many consumer advocates believe that the “substantially equivalent” rule allowed the FDA to ignore evidence that genetically engineered foods are in fact very different from natural foods and pose specific health risks.

The DailyGreen, on the other hand, believes that the appointment of Mr. Taylor would be beneficial for consumer safety. The author finds redemption in the policy Mr. Taylor adopted while heading the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Specifically, in 1994 he announced that the USDA would consider any level of contamination of ground beef with E.Coli to be unsafe, adulterated, and subject to enforcement action. Undoubtedly, such policy is commendable. But I wonder if the author is too quick to dismiss Mr. Taylor’s ties to the industry.

Working for a law firm that represents a company with blighted consumer safety/rights history would not necessarily cast a “pro industry” shadow on Mr. Taylor. Working in-house for such a company, however, may. Additionally, Mr. Taylor cannot get away from the fact that, at a minimum, there is an appearance of impropriety and conflict of interest concerning his work at the FDA when GMO friendly policies were enacted. As mentioned above, during the time that Mr. Taylor served as the deputy commissioner for policy at the FDA in 1991, the agency approved Monsanto’s rBGH. Mr. Taylor also coauthored the FDA’s 1992 policy statement on genetically engineered plant foods and he signed the Federal Register notice stating that milk from cows treated with BGH did not have to be labeled as such. Coincidence? You decide.

His current work as a Senior Fellow at the Resources for the Future is also seen by many as a way to promote the use of genetically modified foods in developing nations under the guise of feeding the hungry.

Without taking away from Mr. Taylor’s effort in adopting a tougher meat inspection policy, it is questionable whether his professional experience demonstrates that his primary concern at his government post will be that of consumer safety.

Dennis Wolff

Mr. Wolff is currently the Secretary of Agriculture for the State of Pennsylvania. According to the OCA, Wolff is also a dairy farmer and owns Pen-Col Farms, a 600-acre dairy cattle operation. The OCA also reports that Wolff has championed agribusiness interests as Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Agriculture, including banning local dairies from marketing their products as free of Monsanto’s rBGH. In addition, Wolff is also a member of the Agriculture Technical Advisory Committee to the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO has been largely credited with forcing so-called “free trade” on farmers and consumers around the globe, undermining national sovereignty and food safety. Finally, the OCA also states that Wolff was a strong proponent of the “ACRE” initiative (Agriculture, Communities and Rural Environment), which gives the Pennsylvania state attorney general’s office the authority to sue municipalities over local farm ordinances deemed to exceed state law, depriving communities the right to ban toxic sewage sludge, factory farms, and GMOs.

According to the Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, Wolff:

  • Tried to ban all labeling of dairy products that did not use genetically engineered growth hormone (rBGH or rBST).
  • Said that consumers were “concerned or confused” about the labeling and said his department received “many calls” about it. Yet when a New York Times reporter asked him about this, Wolff couldn’t provide any surveys showing consumers were confused and could not come up with the name of one consumer who had complained.
  • Held one meeting of the so-called Food Labeling Advisory Committee and said they recommended the labeling ban. Yet the committee never voted on anything and never made any recommendations specific to dairy. Moreover, the group most affected by the rules and most opposed to them, the PA Association of Milk Dealers, was never even invited to the meeting.

Both, Mr. Taylor and Mr. Wolff’s professional backgrounds suggest that they will be industry advocates in their respective positions. Without a doubt the appointment of Mr. Taylor and the rumored appointment of Mr. Wolff is business as usual in Washington D.C. However, for a change, it would have been refreshing to see the appointment to a food safety advisory post an individual whose primary goal was consumer safety.

Also read this Jeoffrey Smith’s article on Huffington Post about Mr. Taylor’s appointment and the rumored appointment of Mr. Wolff.