An important, but little known, component to the newly enacted Food Safety and Modernization Act provides whistleblower protection for workers at Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulated food companies. As reported by Steve Karnowski at the Associated Press, the law protects workers from being fired, demoted or denied promotions or raises if they speak up about what they think are violations.

"Whistleblowers are the informational lifeline to warn the public when government-approved food might be a public health hazard," said Tom Devine, the group’s legal director. "It occurs frequently because the regulatory system can’t hope to catch all the violations through spot checks."

One person with personal experience on the repercussions of whistleblowing is Kenneth Kendrick, who provided important information about unsanitary conditions at a Texas plant owned and operated by the Peanut Corporation of America, the same company responsible for a nationwide Salmonella outbreak in 2008 and 2009 that killed nine and sickened over 700 others.

Kendrick, the Texas plant’s assistant manager for part of 2006, said he sent state regulators anonymous e-mails about a rat infestation at the plant and bird droppings getting into products, but his complaints were ignored. He was working for a different FDA-regulated company when he spoke publicly about the problems, and he believes that’s why he was fired from his new job and why he’s had trouble finding work since.

"Me coming forward has pretty much ruined my life, and had this stuff been in place ahead of time, maybe it would not have," the Lubbock, Texas, man said. "I’ve had a difficult time finding a job that pays more than nine bucks an hour."

The new law protects workers against retaliation for telling their employers or governmental officials about anything they reasonably believe violates the food safety act and for objecting to performing work they reasonably believe is illegal. The Department of Labor and federal courts can reinstate fired employees and award back pay, interest, attorneys’ fees and other damages.

The burden of proof favors workers. All workers need to do initially is show their participation in protected activity may have contributed to repercussions. Employers face a heavier burden because they must then show with clear and convincing evidence that the company would have taken the same action even if the worker hadn’t been a whistleblower.