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FDA’s Mike Taylor departing agency — totally on his own terms

Mike Taylor has chosen the time and day for his departure for a second time from government. His friends and associates received his personal email at 8:35 a.m. Tuesday. It was embargoed until FDA released the news two hours later, marking “on or about” June 1 as his departure date.

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Mike Taylor

Anti-Taylor activists — many of whom were Monsanto haters who’ve been calling for Taylor to be fired since he returned to government in 2009 — were among the last to know. Taylor will step down as deputy commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) around June 1. He made it very clear that he is not making a “retirement announcement.”

“Our magnificently diverse food system is full of challenges and opportunities, and I plan to continue working toward its success, especially in settings where people lack regular accesses to sufficient, nutrition and safe food,” Taylor wrote to friends. “I suspect our paths will cross again.”

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As part of the revision process for the produce safety rule mandated by FSMA, Mike Taylor, right, led other FDA officials on several road trips to meet with growers. Taylor wanted to find out first-hand what their operations were like and didn’t hesitate to get his hands dirty, as he did during this visit with Paul Skeen, left, president of the Malheur County Onion Growers in Oregon.

Taylor has held the top food job a the FDA since 2010. He has led food safety and managed change since the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama in 2011. The Act’s provisions are the most significant reforms to occur in the U.S. food system in 70 years. Before being charged with carrying out that change, Taylor was already the among the most significant figures in U.S. food safety from his first posting in government.

His first tour in government began as a staff attorney at FDA, where he worked on seafood safety and nutrition labels. Taylor then transferred over to USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, where he became acting under secretary for food safety.

Taylor was the government official who, after the deadly 1992-93 Jack-in-the-Box outbreak, ruled that a pathogen, E. coli O157:H7,  was an adulterant in meat.

His decisions in 1993-94 were made over the meat industry’s objections and court challenges, but succeeded in ending the “poke and sniff” method of inspecting meat that dated back to 1906.

When the changes Taylor made during the Clinton Administration are combined with those he’s made during the Obama Administration, he is easily the most significant person in food safety to come along in the last century.

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Michael Taylor, right, and Andy Bary, a Washington State University research scientist, get a close look at compost at the Stemilt Growers composting facility in Wenatchee, WA, during one of the produce rule road trips in 2013.

Taylor was silent on whether he might play a third act in government, but insists he will leave FDA’s food responsibilities in good hands.

Dr. Stephen Ostroff, will take over his duties. Ostroff was until recently FDA’s acting commissioner, while Dr. Robert M. Califf was waiting to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate for the FDA’s top job.

Ostroff joined FDA in 2013 as chief medical officer for the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN). Then he became senior health adviser to Taylor, then FDA’s chief science officer and acting commissioner.

In his “Dear Colleagues and Friends” letter, the exiting Taylor said of Ostroff: “He knows our programs.   And he is the perfect person to lead them into the future.”

Taylor also addressed his own departure.

“After almost seven years, this is the right time for me to move on to the next phase of my career.  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,” he said.

Mike Taylor and then-USDA undersecretary for food safety Elisabeth Hagen shared a break at the 2013 Food Safety Summit in Baltimore.

Mike Taylor and then-USDA undersecretary for food safety Elisabeth Hagen shared a light moment during a break at the 2013 Food Safety Summit in Baltimore.

“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. I’m especially grateful to you and so many others who have worked hard to pass, fund and implement the Food Safety Modernization Act.”

An attorney, Taylor worked in both academia and industry before being named as the Obama Administration’s “food safety czar,” as some early observers called it.

As a young lawyer at the firm of King & Spalding, he worked with Monsanto as a client before joining FDA. When he left government the first time after working for both FDA and USDA, he did a stint as vice president for public policy at Monsanto before doing additional academic and think tank work.

Those experiences were enough to make Taylor the target of colorful demonstrations and over-blown rhetoric, first to block his Obama Administration appointment and for years later to get him fired. But Taylor both outlasted and out-performed his mostly luddite critics, who failed to topple Taylor.

One of his longest non-government assignments was as a senior fellow for the think tank Resource for the Future’s Center for Risk Management. There Taylor was an advocate for a single “farm to table” food safety agency.  It’s not know if he’d be willing to return to government to lead such an agency if one were to be created, as called for in a number of bills currently before Congress.

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