I have known of Mike Taylor since shortly after September 29, 1994.

As Food Safety News reported in “Looking Back: The Story Behind Banning E. Coli O157:H7,” Taylor took the podium that day in San Francisco at the American Meat Institute’s annual convention to make his first, and arguably most significant, speech as the top food safety official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“I am here to talk about change,” began Taylor, who had just become administrator for the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), as he looked out over his all-industry audience. “Change in what the public expects when it comes to food safety, change in how we at the FSIS are approaching our job, and change in the demands being placed on all those who produce, process and market meat and poultry for American consumers.”

Taylor explained his belief that the meat industry had an opportunity to move beyond the politics of food safety and find real solutions on the heels of the massive Jack in the Box E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in the Pacific Northwest that had happened a year before.

And then, Taylor uttered a few lines the industry may not have wanted to hear:

“In one critical respect, our inspection program at FSIS does not currently meet the public expectation. There is a gap in our system.  The fact is we do not deal directly enough and scientifically enough with the microbial pathogens that can make people sick.”

“To clarify an important legal point, we consider raw ground beef that is contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 to be adulterated within the meaning of the Federal Meat Inspection Act.”

“We are prepared to use the Act’s enforcement tools, as necessary, to exclude adulterated products from commerce.”

And, with that the world changed.  This seemingly simple change – calling E. coli O157:H7 an adulterant – has over the last 20 years saved countless children from kidney failure and death.  In the long run it has also saved the beef industry millions of dollars – dollars that would have gone into my pocket and the pockets of clients sickened by that deadly bacterium.  And, that has been a very good thing.

Over the last decades I have bumped into Mike at food safety conferences around the world, as he ushered in HACCP in the meat industry, worked on food safety in academia and in his current food safety role at FDA – forcing the industry to think hard about how to prevent another Jack in the Box.  During the run-up to the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in 2010, I watched as he deftly helped consumers and industry form partnerships to press for the most comprehensive changes in FDA rules in too many decades.

And, during the last few years I have watched quietly as a few groups raised questions about his integrity, including a petition to President Obama to fire him.

Last Friday I flew from Seattle to spend two hours of Saturday in Boston participating in a panel before some 75 journalists at a session of the annual meeting of the Association of Health Care Journalists.  Along with Mike Taylor and Will Daniels (food safety leader at Earthbound Farms), we discussed why foodborne illness persists as a challenging problem and what consumers, government and industry are doing to prevent it.  Each of us had about 20 minutes each to speak.  The plan then was to open it up for questions.

One of the first questions posed to Mike was not about E. coli O157:H7 or how with a limited budget was the FDA trying to implement FSMA.  The first question was about Mike’s “Monsanto baggage,” specifically whether his past role working on biotechnology-related matters for Monsanto, created a conflict of interest for his current role at FDA as Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine.

As the question was being asked, I looked over at Mike and thought to myself, “he simply does not get paid enough to take this.”  But, then again I thought, “heck he is a public servant.  I suppose it simply comes with the territory.”  But, I admit that I was surprised when he responded – politely – and with some details that I do not think he had ever talked about publicly.

Mike explained that his career included time as a staff lawyer at the FDA in the mid 1970s and then practicing law during the 1980s at a law firm that represented Monsanto. He then returned to FDA in 1991 as Deputy Commissioner for Policy under Commissioner David Kessler.  He then led FSIS from 1994 – 1996, where I first heard of him.   In the late 1990s he was employed at Monsanto itself for 16 months, and beginning in 2000 he spent almost a decade in academia doing policy research related to food safety and African agricultural development.  In 2009 he returned to lead the food side of FDA.

Mike was candid with the fact that a history of moving in and out of government through the “revolving door” concerns people and can raise the question of whether his current role at FDA is conflicted by previous private sector roles.  He explained to the questioner, that to guard against such conflicts, the government has clear rules about what a person can and cannot work on under those circumstances, and he follows those rules very carefully.  For example, as Deputy Commissioner for Policy in the mid-’90s, Ethics Counsel said that he could work on general policy matters, such as policies for food labeling, but he was precluded from any involvement in specific product approvals of interest to Monsanto.  So, he explained, among the mythologies surrounding his career was that he was involved in FDA’s decision to approve rBGH, the growth hormone used in dairy cows – he was not.

Surprisingly, Mike was not done setting the record straight.  I say surprisingly, because in all the years I have known him, I had never heard him speak to the issue. He went directly to concerns about his time at Monsanto, and the suggestion one can find readily on the Internet that he is now and always is “Monsanto’s man.”  The questioner was by now a bit out of sorts when Mike said, “nothing is further from the truth.”

Mike explained that while at Monsanto, he worked not as a “lobbyist,” but as the head of an internal think tank and as a policy advisor to senior management.  In this role, he strongly advised Monsanto to drop its opposition to the labeling of biotech foods and to engage its external stakeholders in a more respectful and transparent way.  Monsanto did not take his advice.  He explained that he left Monsanto when it became clear that he would be unable to have any real impact.  He realized that perhaps he was better suited to addressing issues that interested and concerned him from a more “objective platform,” which is why he spent the next decade in universities working primarily on policies affecting agriculture in Africa and food safety as a global public health and food system issue.

Mike explained that he did not feel conflicted by his past experience with biotechnology policy, but he understood concerns about it and thus that the “baggage” he carries is real to some.  That is why he has removed himself from participation in deliberations and decision making on all biotech-related issues that arise in the foods and veterinary medicine programs at FDA even though he has thoughts on it.

Mike began to finish his answer with a bit of introspection – with the tone of someone at both the height of a career and also looking back.  He said that he did his work at FDA every day with only one interest in mind, which is doing everything he can to fulfill the mission given by Congress to protect consumers and public health.  He does this by working as closely as he can with stakeholders and partners, recognizing the need to find practical solutions that consider the wide range of perspectives on FDA issues held by the many people who care deeply about what FDA does.  He said his only goal is to fully implement FSMA and address the range of other food safety, nutrition, and animal health issues central to the mission at FDA.

This week, I had time to do just a little research.  Frankly, it does not take long to find where Mike addressed biotech issues in writing on several occasions. This included a 2003 commentary in the Journal Nature Biotechnology (Vol. 21, No. 8, Aug. 2003) in which he criticized the aggressive approach the U.S. government and biotechnology industry were taking to promote biotech crops overseas, including in Africa, and argued that “the United States should be on the side of empowering choice” in the adoption of biotechnology, “in whatever way works in any given country,” including through labeling.  He also called in that commentary for policy change aimed at strengthening pre-market oversight of biotech foods.  In another article (Taylor and Cayford, American Patent Policy, Biotechnology, and African Agriculture: The Case for Policy Change, Harvard Journal of Law & Technology (Vol. 17, No. 2, Spring 2004), he argued, in the interest of African food security, for changes in U.S. patent policy and international patent agreements that would reduce the control Monsanto and other biotech companies could exercise over biotech crop improvements that could genuinely benefit food security. To me these are not exactly the perspectives of someone looking out for Monsanto’s interests.

As the questions and answers wound down last week, I leaned over and asked Mike if he was up for a cup of coffee.  Over a bad cup, I asked him why after all the years of being called “Monsanto’s Man” did he feel the need to say anything?  He looked a bit perplexed at my question and said:

We’d all like to be judged for what we actually do rather than half-truths and myths on the Internet.  I know I won’t satisfy those who object in principle to people working on FDA-related matters in both the public and private sector, or who think the rules governing these situations are not adequate, or who don’t like the policies FDA has made whether I worked on them or not.  I fully understand and respect that point of view.  About all I can say is that people in positions like mine work in the open, under the guidance and scrutiny of their bosses and many others, and I have always done my best to fulfill my responsibilities to FDA and its public health mission.

I am not sure we can ask more of Mike or anyone in government.