Michael Taylor, the Monsanto Man

Michael Taylor has emerged as a meme, as the personification of corruption within the biotech industry and the FDA.
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Production Code: A0053

The revolving door in leadership positions between industry and regulatory agencies has emerged as a fact point used to detail the corruption in regulatory agencies. Is this revolving door a normal phenomenon in the modern age, defined by the consolidation of power and influence, or is this another critical example of the corporatization of politics? 

Michael R. Taylor has emerged as a meme, as the personification of corruption within the biotech industry and the agencies meant to regulate them. He began his career practicing law for a firm that represented Monsanto; then, in 1991, he worked for half a decade as an Administrator and Deputy Commissioner for Policy at the FDA. This was followed in 1996 by a shorter stint at Monsanto as VicePresident for Public Policy, a position created specifically for him. Afterward, he spent a decade in the academic field, only to return to lead the FDA in 2009 as Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine. 

This professional back and forth certainly gives the appearance of impropriety, but it this really fair? Taylor himself has fought back against the meme and his critics, stating in response to the perceived conflict of interest that “he did not feel conflicted by his past experience with biotechnology policy.” He has pointed to the fact that he went so far as to remove himself from participation in decisions and deliberations on all biotech related issues.  

Given his current role as a Senior Advisor to the FDA Commissioner and as a team leader and collaborator for the Global Food Safety Partnership (GFSP), it seems improbable Taylor could have truly removed himself from decision-making. The FDA Commissioner is the figurehead of the FDA, the entity charged with the monitoring and regulation of scientific data on emerging technologies, including foods. 

So how can the public determine whether someone such as Taylor is an “impartial actor,” as he claims? The first step is to identify the culture between the regulatory agencies and corporations and create a timeline of Taylor’s career. By punctuating this timeline with policy changes, we can observe the influence of this actor within both private and public institutions. We can then evaluate the possibility of an impartial actor whose career is defined by a profound acumen of both regulatory agencies and the biotech industry. 

First, a word on the standing of the FDA and GM foods prior to Taylors involvement. The Office of Science and Technology Policy published the Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology in 1986. This document attributed jurisdiction to the FDA to regulate and monitor food technologies, and that they would do so in a manner no different than traditional foods.  

This policy document indicated that GMO plant products were generally regarded as safeand placed the burden of proof of safety as well as effectiveness of the product on the manufacturer.” This was put forth without scientific context or data and appears to be the seed from which a relaxed consultative process grew.  

Less than a decade later, in 1992, while Michael R. Taylor was the Deputy Commissioner on Policy at the FDA, the FDA issued the Consultation Procedures for Foods Derived From New Plant Varieties. This document confirmed that all new genetically modified (GM) food crops are “substantially equivalent” to non-GM crops, subject to a voluntary consultation process and therefore not requiring pre-market approval. In 1996, a certain set of procedures were detailed outlining the process of voluntary consultation between the FDA and its subsidiary firms and the manufacturer of the GM food crop.  

“These procedures describe a process in which a developer who intends to commercialize food from a new plant variety meets with the agency to identify and discuss relevant safety, nutritional, or other regulatory issues regarding the food. The developer then submits to FDA a summary of its scientific and regulatory assessment of the food. The FDA evaluates the submission and responds to the developer by letter.”

Concerns about a consultative process based on data provided by subsidiaries of the company manufacturing the food product are not arbitrary. There is a history of fraudulent scientific data being presented to legitimize the safety of food products.  

The largest of the scandals was in 1983, when a grand jury ruled against IBT (Industrial Bio-Test Laboratories), whose unscrupulous tests validated the safety of around 15% of all pesticides in the USA. 

In 1981, IBT’s president and his three heads of toxicology were indicted for eight counts of conducting and distributing fake scientific research and attempting to obfuscate this scheme. They were found guilty of attempting to defraud the government and providing inadequate research data. Further, investigators were able to identify complicity on the part of the partnering businesses, including Monsanto, stating that “IBT became the largest testing lab in the country because companies knew this was the place to get the results they wanted.” 

Based on this evidence, Michael R. Taylor did not disrupt the culture between industry and government, but rather further ingrained it. The primary identifiable policy change that occurred at the FDA during Taylors time as Deputy Commissioner is the establishment of a voluntary consultation process with GM crop developers. This means the FDA does not conduct a comprehensive scientific review of data generated by the manufacturer. Instead, the FDA considers unresolved issues that could result in legal action toward the agency if the product were brought to market. 

This voluntary consultative process, which requires little accountability to regulatory agencies, is Taylors great contribution to FDA policy. The source data indicates a progressive deregulation which does more to protect the legal liability of the FDA than the environment or health and safety of American citizens. 

The revolving door between public service and corporate leadership has, in the case of the U.S. biotech industry, fostered a culture advantageous to corporations. This brings us back to our initial question: Can someone whose expertise and professional network are entrenched in an industry fulfill a public-health mandate tasked with regulating that industry?  

In response to media referring to him as the “Monsanto Man,” Taylor 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.” 

If indeed the primary focus of this policymaker was the wellbeing of the public at large, why then would he, as Deputy Commissioner of the FDA, forge the strategy for a voluntary consultation process? How could such a relaxed system––void of public transparency, scientific accountability, and even the ability to actualize regulation by preventing access to markets––protect consumers?  

I concede that perhaps Taylor and the many other public servants occupying leadership roles in the institutions they are meant to police are good faith actors. But given the available evidence, it seems unlikely. Based on the data, the revolving door is both a phenomenon which has served to control and consolidate power and influence as well as merge the mandates of industry and politics. 

Wiki Production Code: A0053

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