Do business interests interfere with the work of Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Department of Agriculture (USDA) employees who are involved with food safety?
Unfortunately, the answer to that question is too often "yes," according to new research by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
In survey results released earlier this month, the UCS revealed that hundreds of FDA and USDA employees feel undue corporate influence is a major problem affecting the nation's food safety. Among more than 1,700 respondents who took part in the survey,
More than 620 respondents (38 percent) agreed or strongly agreed that "public health has been harmed by agency practices that defer to business interests."
More than one quarter (27 percent) said they had personally experienced "instances where public health has been harmed by businesses withholding food safety information from agency investigators" in the past year.
25 percent said they personally experienced corporate interests forcing their agency to withdraw or significantly modify a policy or action designed to protect consumers in the past year. When asked that same question about Congress and non-governmental interests, more than 260 respondents (24 percent) and more than 240 respondents (22 percent) said yes, respectively.
16 percent said they witnessed officials selectively or incompletely using data to justify a specific regulatory outcome.
10 percent said agency decision makers inappropriately asked them to exclude or alter information or conclusions in an agency scientific document.
9 percent said agency managers asked them to provide incomplete, inaccurate or misleading information to the public, regulated industry, media or government officials.
"Upper level management does not adequately support field inspectors and the actions they take to protect the food supply," said Dean Wyatt, a USDA veterinarian who oversees federal slaughter house inspectors. "Not only is there lack of support, but there's outright obstruction, retaliation and abuse of power."
The survey, which was conducted for UCS by the Iowa State University Center for Survey Statistics, also asked respondents about their support for various reforms. The data collected showed that:
71 percent agreed that "requiring each food production facility to conduct a science-based hazard analysis and implement preventive controls" would improve safety.
73 percent said that "establishing a comprehensive electronic system to trace food products through the production and distribution system" would improve safety.
75 percent said that the FDA should increase the frequency of food safety inspections.
"It's unbelievable that FDA does not routinely inspect processing plants," Kenneth Kendrick, a former Peanut Corp assistant plant manager in Plainview, Texas, said.