Only when foodborne illness hits the mainstream media -- such as the recent (and justified) hubbub over antibiotic-resistant Salmonella outbreak tied to ground turkey -- do we all start to think about what actually goes on at meat processing plants and the workers there.
An NPR blog post Friday listed obstacles in the food safety oversight system that can cause horrific delays to massive recalls after a problem is known to exist (such as food giant Cargill's recall of the Salmonella- tainted turkey long after government officials were aware of contamination).
It's a solid list. But what's more interesting is a comment below the blog that raises an issue FIC works to address on a daily basis: the silencing of workers who tried to prevent tainted food from being distributed.
The commenter, listed as "dee see (midnitejax)" wrote:
I was told by a supervisor from Cargill that there were problems with an inspector being difficult at the plant in Springdale. She had caused many delays in the production lines, costing Cargill a lot of money. The Springdale plant was working 2 shifts, and had a narrow window for down time and cleaning. Cargill complained about the inspector, and flew her supervisor to Springdale, where she was promptly removed from her position, and it was back to business as usual. This happened somewhere between 2002 and 2005. If there was any truth to that allegation, then a criminal investigation should be in order.
Imagine the public knowing about Cargill's Salmonella woes years ago … would 107 people have been sickened and one died this year? This is where workers on the inside come into play, with the power to stop massive outbreaks before they start.
Whistleblowers have long complained about required line speeds at meat processing plants (inadequate monitoring) and pressure from corporate officials to let problems slide (to maximize profit). And let's be clear -- if the comment is true, it would likely cause an uproar if publicized. But it's not surprising, in FIC's experience, that an inspector would get into trouble for slowing down the line, even if out of concern for possible contamination (a.k.a. doing her job).
Why is this? Federal workers, such as Dean Wyatt and other government inspectors at meat plants (like Cargill’s), lack adequate whistleblower protections when trying to expose bad practices. The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, which failed last year, would have solved this. But meat and poultry industry workers, such as Cargill plant employees who may witness problems on the line, also still have no strong legal safeguards for reporting USDA violations.
Industry workers reporting FDA violations didn’t gain protections until the Food Safety Modernization Act passed in early 2011. Former PCA employee Kenneth Kendrick reported health concerns prior to the 2009 Salmonella outbreak in peanut butter, but was ignored. He surely could have benefited from whistleblower rights, and possibly saved lives.
Cargill knows how to make money, and one could imagine how it would treat anyone who would put that skill at risk. Without (increasingly) necessary government regulation putting these profit-driven priorities in check, the outright removal and ultimate silencing of inspectors and other workers who threaten industry's deep pockets will continue.
Sarah Damian is New Media Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.