Power of the FDA
Food and medications are something that nobody can say they don’t use on a regular basis throughout their lives. We all have a stake in the issue of food and drug purity, effectiveness, and availability. The FDA or Food and Drug Administration is the government agency primarily responsible for ensuring that our food and drug supplies are safe. They’re the agency that approves new treatments for diseases and novel food products. It’s only natural that an agency with such grave burden and authority be the focus of controversy from time to time. But in recent years they have been the subject of even greater scrutiny as completely new classes of drugs and food products come into the mainstream. Some have questioned whether or not the FDA has the appropriate leadership to take on such an important task. Others see overreaches in authority and still others feel that the agency is too restrained. Here we’ll consider the issue by examining the professional career of an individual with a long history and current connection with the FDA.
Conflict of Interest
Many who oppose the policies of the FDA will point to examples of what could be considered serious conflicts of interest between the agency and the companies that it was designed to regulate. Michael R Taylor has been back and forth through the revolving door between government and the private sector multiple times, first as a staff lawyer for the FDA and later working for a law firm that worked with Monsanto as a client.(1) During that time he argued for an interpretation of a food safety clause that would allow carcinogenic additives in processed foods. His position was that if risk assessments indicated the risk of cancer to be statistically low enough the potential for damage was minimal enough that the additives should be allowed on the market for human consumption. This was commonly referred to the “de minimis” argument.(2) Rational assessment of the motives for allowing these carcinogens into our food can only suggest a desire to maximize corporate profits at the expense of the health of the public at large. Taylor later left the private sector to return to the FDA as Deputy Commissioner for Policy where he fought against allowing labelling on milk produced with the aid of bovine growth hormone or BGH, a Monsanto product with conflicting reports on safety and a swirl of its own controversy.
A few years later Taylor was back in the role of a governmental regulator now with the USDA working as Administrator of the Food Safety & Inspection Service. Again his motives were under scrutiny, this time such that there was a congressional probe into potential conflicts of interest.(3) It wasn’t long before he was back in the private sector at the Monsanto-connected law firm from earlier in his career, and then directly for Monsanto itself as Vice President for Public Policy. For approximately the next decade Michael Taylor bounced around between universities and think tanks but is now back at the FDA in an executive position, again responsible for regulating the very company he spent so much time working with and for.
In looking at this case of an individual who so expertly and effortlessly crossed the boundary between public and private sectors, the question “Does the FDA have too much power?” becomes “Has the FDA’s power been corrupted?” Upon closer examination of the issue there are clear indications that this is indeed the case. The issue as I see it is not overreach but rather a collusion that has resulted in corruption–a transformation of an organization that was intended to protect the public health into one that protects corporate profits at the expense of it.