Thursday, September 19, 2013

Michael Taylor, Monsanto's Revolver

I have been reading Foodopoly (New Press: 2012), Wenonah Hauter’s (head of Food and Water Watch) new study of the consolidation of food power, and though it can be a difficult read at times—mainly because of the thoroughness of Hauter’s research—it is critical material for all Americans. Its main thrust is this: the corporate food industry in America has been working diligently for years to achieve the level of dominance they now have: Monsanto, for instance, has bought up virtually every seed company in the world and now controls most seeds necessary for agricultural plant life, upon which human life depends; many supposedly organic products are now owned by the likes of Nestle, General Mills and Coca Cola. The corporate food giants have been able to do this because of the intimate collusion between them and the regulatory agencies (including presidents of both parties) charged with controlling them. American corporate food has become as much a part of American hegemony as the Department of “Defense,” and the ability of these international outlaws to promote (force) the planting of American-designed crops (GMOs) in foreign nations—like Mexico, like India, like Argentina and Paraguay—is interconnected with American military power. The American Empire is an empire of designer crops and the chemicals that enable them as much as it is an empire of military hardware.

It is impossible to go through Hauter’s entire book here; I heartily recommend it to everyone. To give some idea of the collusion between government and corporate food giants in Foodopoly, however, the case of one individual, Michael Taylor, can be taken as emblematic. The material on Taylor comes not only from Hauter’s book, but also from several videos and articles devoted to him by the likes of Jeffrey Smith (see his numerous pieces at Huffington Post about Monsanto and Taylor, specifically “You’re Appointing Who?” Huff Post July 23, 2009) and a video available on Top Documentary Films, “The World According to Monsanto” <> ).

So who is Michael Taylor? At this writing, he’s the Deputy Commissioner for Foods in Barack Obama’s FDA (Food and Drug Administration.) Like at least one of his other posts (Deputy Commissioner for Policy, also at the FDA, in 1991), this one was newly created, tailored, as it were, to Taylor himself. He has been said to epitomize the “revolving door” in Washington, wherein government officials trade on their government experience to obtain lucrative positions in industry and/or lobbying. His brief vita will explain why. Taylor began as a staff attorney at the FDA in 1976. He stayed there for a few years until 1981, when he left government to become an attorney with the Washington law firm of King & Spaulding, a major legal player in DC specializing in regulatory law. One of King & Spaulding’s clients was Monsanto, and Taylor is said to have “established and led the firm’s food and drug law practice.” Not surprising, since he had just come from the FDA. One of his notable achievements while at King & Spaulding, was an article, “The De Minimis Interpretation of the Delaney Clause.” The Delaney Clause of 1958 had for years prohibited any chemical additive found to be carcinogenic in any amount from entering foods. And for years this seemed a no-brainer: why would anyone want to eat cancer-causing material? Taylor thought otherwise, however, especially because, with modern methods, more and more food additives were being found to be carcinogenic. In his article, Taylor argued for a less stringent approach—one which stated that if a carcinogen was present at levels below 1 part in 1 million, the risk was minimal and so the carcinogenic product could be allowed on the market. This was said by Taylor and his supporters to be “reasonable” regulation; organic food advocates argued that this rule was promoted by Taylor to benefit his client, Monsanto, and other large food corporations, with consumers, as usual, taking the risks.

Whatever the conclusion, Taylor thereby became a poster boy for the “de-regulation” movement. He had already proven his worth to both Monsanto and the Reagan Administration in 1984 with his strategy of coming up with an industry-friendly framework for the regulation of the biotech industry. Titled the ‘Coordinate Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology,’ it remains the basis of regulation today, and was designed to head off Congressional rules or statutes that could cause problems for the industry. Even according to Wikipedia, it was developed “to ensure the safety of the public and to ensure the continuing development of the fledgling biotechnology industry without overly burdensome regulation.” The framework policy had three basic parts—1) focus on the product of genetic modification techniques, not the process itself; 2) only regulate based on verifiable scientific risks; 3) GM products are on a continuum with existing products, and therefore, existing statutes are sufficient to review the products. Again, this framework invented by Taylor became the basis for all subsequent rules governing (or not governing) biotechnology today, and contrasted sharply with regulations in Europe and elsewhere demanding that GM foods be labeled. This contrast came into sharp focus in 1992, when Taylor, again passing through the revolving door, left King & Spalding to take a position created for him by President George H.W. Bush as Deputy Commissioner of Policy at the FDA. Here Taylor had a hand in the new FDA policy statement on genetically-engineered plant foods, which policy treats “transferred genetic material and the intended expression product or products” in food derived from GM crops as “food additives” subject to existing food additive regulation. This means that the new genetic material—creating a plant entirely new in genetic history—conveniently slips under the GRAS (generally recognized as safe) rule—whereby the producer, say Monsanto, declares that according to its tests, the material is safe. Well, sure, why not trust old Monsanto? The makers of Agent Orange and PCBs would never lie, now would they?

These two policies, both invented by Michael Taylor (or perhaps by the policy wonks at Monsanto and promoted vigorously by Taylor), have had fundamental and long-lasting consequences. First, the foreign genes used to genetically modify basic life forms were treated as simply another additive, like yellow coloring. And second, and critically, genetically modified foods created in the laboratory were treated the same as—with no substantial difference from—foods produced by nature. Hence, anyone can invent a new genetically modified product (spider genes in pigs, say) and put it out there, without having to notify consumers. It’s all biology, after all.

Taylor was not done, however. Monsanto, his former client, was having trouble with its bovine growth hormone, rBGH, marketed as Posilac. This monster hormone had been created by Monsanto in the 1980s to increase milk production in dairy cows. Monsanto submitted its materials allegedly indicating rBGH safety to the FDA, and amidst growing public concern, the FDA looked briefly at the health impacts (all provided by Monsanto and other biotech companies) of drinking milk produced this way, and concluded there were none. In 1987, Monsanto officially applied for FDA approval; and despite new data suggesting that drinking GMO milk caused increased exposure to the insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1; which has been found to increase the risk of breast, colon, prostate and other cancers ), the FDA in 1989 gave rBGH its approval. Just another additive. The problem was, some milk companies were labeling their milk “rBHG-free,” and Monsanto didn’t like that at all. The label implied that something was wrong with milk containing its rBHG (which was true). Again, Michael Taylor, still at the FDA, came through for his client by writing new regulations governing milk labeling. Arguing that the “rBGH-free” label was unfairly misleading, his regulations mandated that the FDA conclusion had to also be included to “balance” the label. The required FDA statement was: “No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rbST-treated and non rbST-treated cows” (rbST is the industry’s name for rBGH). And in days, Monsanto sued two dairy farms that had labeled their milk only “rBGH-free,” with King & Spalding weighing in with warning letters to other “non-compliant” dairies.

Most countries, including Australia and Canada, banned the use of rBGH in light of many studies proving that rBGH causes lower birth rates and weights of calves, and diseases such as mastitis (infection of the udders), cystic ovaries, and hoof and leg problems in cows treated with it. Indeed, ‘The World According to Monsanto,’ noted above, reports that milk from such cows is contaminated with pus (from mastitis) and the GMO hormone itself. Tiring of the problems, Monsanto in August 2008 got out of the artificial hormone business, and sold its rBGH operations to the giant pharmaceutical company, Eli Lilly. Lilly has now focused its sales efforts on the developing world where there is less publicity about the side effects, and more pressure to industrialize traditional agriculture.

Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall before his client did, Michael Taylor shifted jobs once again in 1994, wangling an appointment with the Clinton administration as the Administrator of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Maintaining his old bag of tricks (to come up with toothless regulations before Congress or nosey regulators get the chance to come up with real ones), Taylor at USDA invented and implemented the rules known as HAACP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points system) for meat and poultry production. Wenonah Hauter has a great deal to say about this too, and it’s mostly bad. Basically, what HAACP does is provide meat and poultry producers with relief from those pesky meat inspectors—the ones who, since 1906 when the Food and Drug Administration was created in response to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, had inspected animals before they were cut up and passed through the line. This kept diseased and sick cattle from being slaughtered and entering the food supply. But it also wasted a lot of “perfectly good cows,” slowed down the slaughtering line, and required numerous inspectors. Taylor came up with the “post”-slaughter inspection-and-remediation system: under HAACP, meat was treated at the end of the line with disinfectant chemicals like ammonia, and (possibly) radiation. Thus, animals that had visibly obvious cancerous growths and sores and feces and other gross stuff on them could be simply passed through, and disinfected at the end. Much more scientific, said Taylor. And efficient.

Taylor still hadn’t finished with the revolving door, though. In 1996, he was back at King & Spalding for a couple of years, and then, really cashing in, took a position at his old client Monsanto as Vice President for Public Policy. Whatever that means; propaganda probably. No matter. His move indicated, as nothing else could, his true colors as a creature of corporate America. What’s astonishing is that this blatantly self-serving move did not diminish his credibility in Washington, in government, one bit. It may have enhanced it, in fact. Because in July 2009, to his everlasting shame, President Barack Obama, over howls of protest from the healthy food movement, appointed Michael Taylor as Senior Advisor to the FDA Commissioner. And in January 2013, yet another new post was created for this corporate hack, once again at the FDA, this time as Obama’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods. As Jeffrey Smith said about Taylor after his initial selection by Obama: “The person who may be responsible for more food-related illness and death than anyone in history has just been made the US food safety czar.”

Now you know what Wenonah Hauter’s book is about, and it isn’t pretty. Government agencies are so thoroughly polluted with corporate money and corporate insiders that the boast of Americans about the purity of their food system has become a hollow joke. Unless and until an enraged public rises up to demand some accounting of just who gets appointed and how, and some way of getting rid of the revolving door that puts foxes in charge of the hen houses—Hauter’s material on industrial chicken farms is enough to have me reaching for a weapon—the same cozy relationships will continue to compromise and poison our food supply. Individuals buying organics are no help either. Most organic producers, as I noted at the beginning, have already been bought up by the bigs. And besides, carving out a safe haven at your local Whole Foods Market (another farce; an amazing percentage of products sold there are not even organic) only emboldens the sharks to make a killing off the desire of those who can afford it to eat healthy. No, something fundamental needs to be done, and it needs to get at the root. Organic food was introduced as a concept fifty years ago as a part of restoring a sustainable system of farming, food production and the entire relationship of consumers to food, not as a way to market boutique products to the wealthy. Until that original purpose is revitalized, foodopolies and their corporate revolvers will continue to grow, like the cancers that are their emblem.

Lawrence DiStasi

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