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New Whistleblower Protections Hope to Improve Food Safety

Whether it’s poultry pumped with banned substances, animal cruelty in industrial farming or salmonella in peanut butter, we seem to be hearing more often these days about profound problems within our food supply chain. A recent measure signed into law by President Barack Obama that outlines the strongest federal whistleblower protections in history could change that.

The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act passed the U.S. House of Representatives late last September and the Senate last November. This long-overdue legislation overturns many loopholes and provides critically important upgrades to formerly “weak protections,” says a press release issued by the Government Accountability Project’s Food Integrity Campaign (FIC).

The law’s enactment is expected to play a significant role in food safety oversight, as it better protects workers charged with enforcing food safety laws—including U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinarians and inspectors, as well as U.S. Food and Drug Administration employees. The press release further states that over the past several years, FIC has heard from countless federal whistleblowers who desperately wanted to expose food industry wrongdoing or threats to public health, but chose to stay silent for fear that existing whistleblower protections would not effectively shield them from retaliation.

“Strong whistleblower protections mean safer food. This is a huge accomplishment,” said FIC Director Amanda Hitt. “We’re moving in the right direction. Government workers who serve as the public’s watchdog are now themselves safer from retaliation. Federal food safety employees have finally been deputized to protect the food supply.”

Here are a few examples of the types of whistleblowing that are now protected:

  • a public health veterinarian reporting to his or her USDA supervisor that a slaughterhouse repeatedly violated humane handling regulations
  • an FDA inspector exposing falsification of salmonella records at a produce farm
  • a Food Safety and Inspection Service district office manager reporting frequent complaints by poultry inspectors that increased line speeds were making it impossible for workers to pull potentially contaminated birds off the line
  • an FDA researcher reporting that his or her attempts to publish new findings on a controversial food ingredient were stifled by upper management

Hitt says legislation for whistleblower protections remains unfinished:

“The [new act’s] protections only cover federal food employees, and the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act protects corporate workers exposing problems with FDA-regulated products. But USDA-regulated product industry workers still lack protections. These workers—who monitor our beef, poultry, pork and egg products—still cannot safely speak up for the public welfare.”

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