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Survey: Political Pressures Hurt Food Safety

One in four scientists and inspectors at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration surveyed by the Union of Concerned Scientists say they have personally experienced “instances where public health has been harmed by business withholding food safety information from agency investigators.”

The survey, conducted by the Iowa State University Center for Survey Statistics, released by UCS yesterday indicates that large numbers of public health officials believe industry pressure has weakened food safety regulation.

“Hundreds of scientists and inspectors responsible for food safety have personally experienced political interference in their work, and that’s bad for public health,” said Francesca Grifo, director of UCS’s Scientific Integrity Program. “Both the administration and Congress need to act.”

The survey found that 38 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “public health has been harmed by agency practices that defer to business interests.” Twenty-five percent said they had personally experienced corporate interests forcing the withdrawal or modification of policies or other actions “designed to protect consumers.”

According to UCS, the survey results were not all negative. A majority of respondents said that interference had decreased under the Obama administration. “However, the improvement was very small.”

“A majority said specific reforms would make the nation’s food safer,” said Grifo in a statement yesterday. “Respondents overwhelmingly said establishing stronger whistleblower protections for inspectors and regulators would improve food safety.”

UCS also pointed to a number of reforms supported by the majority of survey participants including: mandatory preventive controls at food facilities, improved traceability, and increased inspection frequency–all reforms included in the pending food safety bill.

“Food safety legislation is sorely needed, but the administration also could address some of the problems the survey identified by releasing the scientific integrity directive the president said he would release more than a year ago,” said Grifo.

“A directive that provided better protection for whistleblowers, ensured scientists and inspectors the right to speak publicly about their work, and ordered agencies to release visitors logs documenting with whom management met would help improve food safety.”   

More than 1,700 FDA and USDA officials took part in the survey. According to UCS, most of the respondents had worked at their respective agencies for more than 10 years.

The results from the survey are available online here.  

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