Today, The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released the results of a survey of 1,710 federal food safety workers aimed at gauging their independence from business interests, and even interference from officials within their own agencies. In the wake of Wright County Egg’s salmonella outbreak, the FDA and USDA have been criticized for perceived failures in food safety oversight (despite failures in this outbreak, Wright County Egg deserves all the blame), but the present survey was completed before anybody knew about the Wright County Egg outbreak, which makes it even more concerning. From the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy’s (CIDRAP) comments about the survey:
About 38% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that public health has been hurt by agency practices that defer to business interests. Twenty-seven percent said they had personally experienced instances when businesses withheld food safety information from agency investigators in the past year. A quarter responded that they knew of instances when corporate interests forced their agency to pull or revise policies or actions that were designed to protect consumers in the past year.
Similarly, when researchers asked if Congress or "nongovernmental groups" had forced their agency to withdraw or change food safety policies or actions in the past year, 24% and 22% said yes, respectively.
Dean Wyatt, a USDA veterinarian who supervises slaughterhouse inspectors, said in the UCS statement that the agency retaliates against inspectors who document legitimate safety violations. "Upper level management does not adequately support field inspectors and the actions they take to protect the food supply," he said. "Not only is there lack of support, but there’s outright obstruction, retaliation, and abuse of power."
More than 100 respondents said agencies asked them to delete or change scientific information, the UCS report said. For example, 16% said they saw officials selectively use data to justify a particular regulatory outcome. Ten percent said their agencies had asked them to exclude or change information or conclusions in scientific documents. They said interference has decreased slightly under the Obama administration compared with the Bush years.
Grifo said respondents overwhelmingly said stronger whistleblower protections for inspectors and regulators would improve food safety. They also voiced support for other reforms, many of which are included in the passed House bill and the proposed Senate bill, such as requiring companies to conduct hazard analyses and implement prevention programs and improving the system for tracing food products.