Food Safety Law Encourages Whistleblowers

The recently signed food safety law contains within it a provision that encourages whistleblowers to come forward with information that can help prevent <"">foodborne illness. The Seattle Times wrote that, under the provision, food industry workers employed by Food & Drug Administration (FDA)-regulated firms from employer reprisal such as being “fired, demoted or being denied promotions or raises,” when coming forward about food safety violations.

The food safety law was signed by President Barack Obama last month and is geared to not only prevent foodborne Illness, but to enable the FDA to implement recalls and ease how it traces contaminated food back to from where it originated, said The Seattle Times.

One concern is that the food poisoning whistleblower provision is not broadly known by workers who might be aware of Food Safety infractions. The Government Accountability Project, which is a non-profit whistleblowing organization, seeks to increase awareness, said The Seattle Times. One step toward that end is a Washington-based conference it is sponsoring later this week.

“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, quoted The Seattle Times. “It occurs frequently because the regulatory system can’t hope to catch all the violations through spot checks,” added Devine.

One of the scheduled speakers is Kenneth Kendrick, known for speaking out in 2009 concerning the deplorable conditions at Peanut Corporation of America’s (PCA) plant in Texas, noted The Seattle Times. PCA was responsible for the historic 2008-2009 Salmonella Outbreak that sickened hundreds, killed nine, and resulted in thousands of product recalls.

Kendrick was a PCA plant manager during 2006, said The Seattle Times, and sent anonymous emails to state regulators concerning a rat infestation at the Texas PCA plant and bird droppings tainting PCA products. His complaints went unanswered. But, when he was employed for another FDA-regulated firm, he came forward and now believes that public disclosure resulted in his firing from that job and his inability to find a similar position elsewhere, wrote The Seattle Times.

“Me coming forward has pretty much ruined my life, and had this stuff been in place ahead of time, maybe it would not have,” said Kendrick. “I’ve had a difficult time finding a job that pays more than nine bucks an hour,” he added, quoted The Seattle Times.

“Workers on the front lines should never have to hesitate to sound the alarm when they discover practices that could compromise public safety,” said, Senator Tom Harkin—Democrat-Iowa—in a written statement, reported The Seattle Times. “Unless workers are free to speak out without fear of retaliation, we might never learn about threats to public safety until it’s too late,” the senator added. Senator Harkin is chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

The Senate and House bills increase FDA power over issuing food recalls, increase facility inspections, mandate food producer accountability, and increase farm activity oversight, said the NY Times previously. Neither version compresses redundant U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)—and other entities—food safety and oversight functions. This ongoing duplication has created significant coordination issues.

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