Michael R. Taylor’s surprise departure from the FDA as deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, announced in early March and effective June 1, 2016, comes at a particularly critical time for the agency, which is in final stages of implementing the Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA). Taylor had been the primary point person at FDA responsible for FSMA, from overseeing the drafting of the regulations, to organizing outreach efforts with industry interest groups and other stakeholders, and to revising and finalizing the rules based on public comment and feedback.
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“After almost seven years, this is the right time for me to move on to the next phase of my career,” Taylor wrote in a March 8, 2016 email to his FDA colleagues. “It’s not an easy decision. This job has been an honor and a pleasure for me and remains as challenging and satisfying as ever. I am privileged to work with the most talented, passionate, and resilient public servants on the planet and have learned enormously from them, as well as from our many stakeholders and partners elsewhere in government and in the consumer and industry communities.”
Taylor did not disclose his future activities, saying only that he planned to continue working in the food safety arena, focusing on those settings where people lack regular access to sufficient, nutritious, and safe food.
FDA announced that Stephen Ostroff, MD, would replace Taylor as deputy commissioner for foods. Dr. Ostroff had served as acting FDA commissioner until the appointment in February 2016 of Robert Califf, MD, to the top post. Dr. Ostroff joined FDA in 2013 as chief medical officer in the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), where he served as senior public health advisor to Taylor. He became the agency’s chief scientist in 2014, responsible for leading and coordinating FDA’s cross-cutting scientific and public health efforts. “He knows our programs. And he is the perfect person to lead them into the future,” Taylor said of Dr. Ostroff in his March email to FDA colleagues.
Competence and Professionalism
Taylor has won praise from the food industry for competence and professionalism during his multi-year, multi-stakeholder effort to usher FSMA from concept to (mostly) final rules and implementation. “Mike Taylor has left a remarkable legacy as deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine,” says Pamela G. Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association. “Under his leadership, the agency successfully ushered in the most sweeping set of reforms to our nation’s food safety system in a generation through the implementation of FSMA. He worked openly and fairly with stakeholders on all sides of this important—and complicated—issue, and the result has been a strengthened food safety system that benefits all Americans,” Bailey told Food Quality & Safety magazine. “Steve Ostroff’s experience both with CFSAN and as acting FDA commissioner, and his expertise in food safety and nutrition, make him exactly the right person to follow Mike Taylor and to continue FDA’s important work in these areas,” she adds. “We look forward to working with him.”
Craig W. Henry, PhD, vice president for global business development, Americas, Decernis LLC, says he was “saddened” by Taylor’s departure “because there is still so much yet to do with the implementation of FSMA regulations.”
“I have known Mike since 2004 and truly appreciate and thank him for his ongoing commitment to protecting the public while engaging all stakeholders for input and guidance,” Dr. Henry says. “He has served the U.S. government well over the years. As an industry professional, I find Mike to be fair and sincerely engaged to improve food safety programs and processes for the benefit of the public as well as the multiple industries supplying the highest quality food products in our global market,” Dr. Henry told Food Quality & Safety.
“Mike Taylor’s legacy has been to push FSMA from passage into law through rules and regulations,” comments David Acheson, MD, founder and CEO of The Acheson Group and a former FDA associate commissioner for foods. “This has been no small accomplishment. The next step is to lead it into full implementation. That’s the toughest part because that’s where the rubber meets the road,” he tells Food Quality & Safety.
“Stephen Ostroff is a physician who understands food science and public health. I like that. That’s exactly what this position needs now,” Dr. Acheson adds. “He has the credibility but he will also need to have the leadership and vision to rally the troops to bring FSMA into full implementation.”
Prior to joining FDA in 2013, Dr. Ostroff served as deputy director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases at the CDC, where he was also acting director of the agency’s Select Agent Program. While at CDC he focused on emerging infectious diseases, food safety, and coordination of complex outbreak response, according to his official bio. He retired from the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service at the rank of rear admiral (assistant surgeon general).
Dr. Ostroff also served as director of the Bureau of Epidemiology and acting physician general for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and has consulted internationally on public health projects in South Asia and Latin America. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine in 1981 and completed residencies in internal medicine at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and preventive medicine at CDC.
Career in Public and Private Sectors
Taylor’s long career in government, industry, and academia has earned him praise as well as criticism. After receiving a law degree from the University of Virginia, Taylor joined FDA as a staff attorney in 1976. In 1981 he joined the law practice of King & Spalding, eventually becoming head of the firm’s food and drug law practice, with Monsanto being one of his clients. He returned to FDA from 1991 to 1994 as deputy commissioner for policy. From 1994-1996 Taylor was administrator of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, during which time he instituted Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, or HACCP, to improve the safety of meat and poultry production. Between 1996 and 2000, he joined Monsanto as a vice president for public policy. He served as a senior fellow at Resources for the Future from 2000 to 2005, and from 2006 to 2009 held academic positions at the University of Maryland Medical School and at George Washington University. He returned to FDA in July 2009.
Taylor had become a frequent target of attack by anti-GMO and other groups who demonized him for having worked for and on behalf of Monsanto Co. Online petition drives sought to force Taylor’s removal from office because of his association with Monsanto and the “revolving door” nature of his career. One such effort claims to have gathered more than 466,000 signatures since first opposing Taylor’s appointment as senior adviser to the FDA commissioner in July 2009. “Taylor is the same person who as a high-ranking official at the FDA in the 1990s promoted allowing genetically modified organisms into the U.S. food supply without undergoing a single test to determine their safety or risks,” reads the petition, posted by MoveOn.org. “This is a travesty.”
But numerous consumer groups and academics rallied in Taylor’s defense. One rebuttal was signed by several consumer advocates and academics, including Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and Carol Tucker-Foreman, a distinguished fellow at the Consumer Federation of America and a former assistant agriculture secretary. “The undersigned have diverse views regarding genetically engineered foods, but we are unanimous in our belief that Taylor is a valued deputy commissioner, and we regret that a factually untrue Internet smear campaign has attracted so much support,” they wrote in an online “open letter.”
“We acknowledge that Monsanto symbolizes a lot of things that many people (including some of us) don’t like about modern, industrial agriculture. But Mr. Taylor’s résumé is not reducible to his work at that company,” they continued. “Since joining the Obama administration, Taylor has been working extraordinarily hard to transform the FDA from a reactive agency that chases down foodborne-illness outbreaks after people fall ill, to a proactive public‐health‐based agency focused on preventing foods from becoming contaminated in the first place.
“We are confident that his leadership, formerly at USDA and now at FDA, has and will continue to reduce the number of Americans sickened, hospitalized, and killed by foodborne pathogens,” they concluded.