The federal government’s oversight of the nation’s food supply has for decades been split among 13 disparate and sometimes feuding agencies. The result has been a growing menu of food recalls, including contaminated peanut butter, spinach and cookie dough, and the annual sickening of about 70 million people.
With new powers and extensive Washington experience, Mr. Taylor is supposed to fix this mess. But he is likely to be on a short leash.
Some powerful legislators in Congress had proposed creating a new agency combining the government’s many food functions. The compromise legislation headed for passage by spring will instead invest more food authority and money in the F.D.A. functions Mr. Taylor will oversee.
But if Mr. Taylor proves unable to prevent or quickly resolve the growing number of food scares, the idea of a separate food agency is likely to be revisited.
In an interview at a Washington coffee shop, Mr. Taylor said his biggest task was readying the F.D.A. to handle the new powers that Congress will soon give it. The legislation is expected to grant the agency the power to recall suspect foods, require manufacturers to establish plans to prevent contamination, and increase food inspections.
“Unless we work in a more unified way, we won’t be able to implement the law effectively,” Mr. Taylor said.
Setting safety standards for produce — a source of a growing number of food scares in recent years — is a top priority, although the task is enormously complicated, Mr. Taylor said. Even more difficult will be enforcing the rules, since there are more than two million farms in the nation, he said.
Mr. Taylor started his career in 1976 as an F.D.A. staff lawyer and over the next three decades migrated among government, industry and academia. He returned to the F.D.A. in 1991 as deputy commissioner for policy and moved in 1994 to head the Department of Agriculture’s meat inspection service.
Since July, he has served as a senior adviser to Commissioner Margaret Hamburg of the F.D.A. He once worked for Monsanto, the agribusiness giant, leading some in the organic movement to oppose his appointment.
Mr. Taylor is popular among many food-safety and nutrition advocates, who call him intelligent and courageous. But he stumbled in his first major policy initiative since returning to the agency in July, and his considerable experience may have been his undoing.
Fifteen years ago, Mr. Taylor took the top job at the Food Safety and Inspection Service, the unit within the Agriculture Department that oversees meat inspections. Within weeks, he told a gathering of meat industry executives that the government would soon insist on tougher safety standards. An uproar ensued, but Mr. Taylor prevailed.
Then in November, a few months after rejoining the F.D.A., Mr. Taylor told a conclave of oyster industry officials that voluntary efforts to eliminate deaths associated with consumption of live Gulf Coast oysters harvested in warm months had not worked, and that the agency would soon ban their sale. Same speech, different audience.
But after members of Congress protested, the agency indefinitely delayed the new rules. (Mr. Taylor said that the agency was still committed to its goal of reducing oyster-related deaths.)
Dr. David Acheson, who was until last year the F.D.A.’s top food official, said the oyster reversal was the result of an alarming naïveté on Mr. Taylor’s part that seriously damaged the agency’s credibility. Dr. Acheson criticized Mr. Taylor for failing to live up to President Obama’s promise to increase significantly the safety of the nation’s food supply.
“We’re nearly a year into this new administration, and what have they done to move the ball forward?” Dr. Acheson asked. “I think the answer is a big fat zero.”
At a food-safety conference in Washington last year, Dr. Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, stood in the hallway and debated Mr. Taylor’s qualities with Russell Libby, the executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. “He’s extremely knowledgeable and public-health oriented,” Dr. Jacobson said in a later interview.
Mr. Libby responded that Mr. Taylor reflects the view “that everybody’s going to eat food from large corporations and we need someone from that world to solve these problems.”
At the interview, Mr. Taylor got coffee, but no pastry. He said that he was trying to avoid gaining the usual 15 pounds that top F.D.A. officials often pack on, but that candy corn was a problem.
“We want accountability at the F.D.A., so check back with me on the weight thing,” Mr. Taylor said.