Skirting safety

Hundreds of employees who work with food safety say public health has been harmed by their agencies’ relationships with business interests, according to a new survey by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

More than 1,700 respondents from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Department of Agriculture (USDA) took the survey, and most participants had worked at their agency for more than 10 years. Thirty-eight percent of them agreed that “public health has been harmed by agency practices that defer to business interests.”

Roughly a quarter of respondents said that, in the past year, they’d personally witnessed businesses withholding food safety information from agency investigators, and they’d seen corporate interests force their agency to withdraw or modify an action designed to protect consumers. More than 100 respondents said their agencies asked them to exclude or alter scientific information; 105 people said their agency asked them to exclude or alter information in an agency scientific document; and 98 people said they were asked to provide incomplete, inaccurate or misleading information to the public, regulated industry, media or government officials. And only 35 percent of respondents felt confident about the safety of imported foods.

Reforms suggested by respondents included having a better system to trace food products, stronger whistleblower protections, better preventive controls and increasing food safety inspections. Currently, the FDA inspects facilities once every 10 years. This, during a year that saw two Iowa farms recall more than half a billion eggs linked to salmonella poisoning.

Some of these suggestions are being considered as part of food safety legislation that would give the FDA authority to recall contaminated foods and fine companies that knowingly sell them. Currently, says the UCS, “the agency only has the power to request that companies conduct recalls.”