By Helena Bottemiller
The Government Accountability Project (GAP) held a conference yesterday focused on the important role whistleblowers play in protecting the food supply, exploring ways to empower more food workers to speak out against inhumane and unsafe practices in the food system.
"Where are the whistleblowers when we need them?" asked Tom Devine, to his audience of food policy wonks and law students attending the event at American University's Washington College of Law.
Devine, who serves as the legal director of GAP and has worked with over 5,000 whistleblowers in his 30 years with the organization, explained that though he believes more legal protections are needed for employees that step forward, what is needed even more so is community and colleague support for employee integrity.
"Solidarity makes the difference," said Devine.
"You have to give decent rights to people so they can tell the truth and get away with it," said Devine, noting that food workers often face the threat of losing their jobs, being deported, or harassment from management for speaking out against food safety or animal treatment violations.
Felicia Nestor, of Food and Water Watch, the "matriarch of food safety whistleblowers" as Tom Devine calls her, also stressed the difficulty in empowering employees to come forward with issues.
"It really is asking a lot for a mother, father, grandfather, grandmother to put their family's security at risk to make a disclosure that Congress or the the media may or may not care about," said Nestor.
Very often sources with information that is important for public health wont speak up unless its anonymous explained Nestor, citing last month's front page New York Times expose on meat regulation that used anonymous U.S. Department of Agriculture meat inspectors as prime sources last month as a prime example.
"The industry is not going to tell you truth about how that meat is made, [Food Safety and Inspection Service] is not going to tell you the truth about how that meat is made. But the inspectors, they can tell you the details," added Nestor.
Experts at the conference unanimously agreed that more could be done to empower food industry employees to speak out when serious problems arise.
The food safety legislation in pending in Congress would provide additional whistleblower protections, but advocates worry that legislation is not enough. "It's a step in the right direction, but the burden of proof is still on the worker," said Erik Nicholson, the national vice president of United Farm Workers.
The conference also held panels on the Peanut Corporation of America peanut recall and the Westland-Hallmark beef recall, two of the largest in American history, and featured keynote addresses from Seattle-based food safety lawyer and advocate William D. Marler and former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Dr. David Kessler.