Saying that American food safety would improve if federal employees serving the food system had strong whistleblower protections – allowing them to reveal agency violations – seems like common sense if you ask me. Thanks to GAP coalition partner Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a new survey of USDA and FDA employees confirms this belief.
Over 1,700 scientists and inspectors responded to the UCS 44-question survey about what helps and hinders our food system. An overwhelming majority (70 percent!) said establishing stronger whistleblower protections for inspectors, regulators and food industry workers would improve food safety. Only two percent disagreed with this. In addition to that, more than 300 federal employee respondents affirmed that corporate interests forced their agency "to withdraw or significantly modify a policy or action designed to protect consumers in the past year." Many even said agency managers asked them to provide incomplete, inaccurate or misleading information.
If, in fact, USDA and FDA employees did feel protected under the law to speak out when their agencies failed to uphold food safety regulations, then a burning question must be asked – How many of the 85 recalls reported in the last year could have been prevented? Whistleblowers risk heavy consequences when trying to go up against the seemingly unbreakable corporate-government love affair that is the current U.S. food system. With more accountability power, perhaps government inspectors would have listened to GAP client Kenneth Kendrick – who tried to blow the whistle on Peanut Corp.'s health violations prior to the massive Salmonella outbreak last year. Or maybe USDA veterinarian Dean Wyatt would not have been penalized for exposing inhumane handling of animals at various plants in 2007. The list goes on.
The UCS report reinforces the need for new food safety legislation. It's no question that more regulation needs to take effect to ensure safe food for consumers. But making sure those who play a role in the food system have rights that help maintain such regulation is also essential. The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act that is currently stuck in the Senate includes a provision that establishes whistleblower protections for employees of entities "engaged in the manufacture, processing, packing, transporting, distribution, reception, holding, or importation of food" who provide information relating to any violation of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. Until a bill is passed that protects these employees, our food system continues to hang in the balance. Send a letter now urging your representative to support stronger whistleblower protections.
To learn more about other food safety recommendations concluded in the survey, go to the UCS website.
Sarah Damian is Social and New Media Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.