(Washington, D.C.) – Today, the Government Accountability Project (GAP) is praising Congress for passing the most comprehensive whistleblower protections for food industry workers in history. A provision in the Food Safety Modernization Act, passed today by the House and expected to be signed by President Obama, provides sweeping protections for corporate employees who report any food violations enforced by the FDA.
"These whistleblower protection provisions are a monumental change in public health protection, and a huge win for food safety," said GAP Food Integrity Campaign (FIC) Director Amanda Hitt. "Whistleblower rights don’t get any stronger than this. Without a doubt, these protections will allow more workers to come forward before outbreaks, which will save lives and enhance food integrity. Lawmakers who made this happen should be commended for standing up for public health."
The protections only extend to corporate workers who report violations of FDA regulations -- not to violations of USDA regulations, which cover the meat and poultry industries. On this point, GAP Legal Director Tom Devine added: “There is no rational excuse to protect corporate workers challenging violations of FDA food safety laws while allowing them to keep getting fired at will for defending USDA food safety laws.”
Devine also urged Congress to give federal employees -- such as FDA and USDA employees -- comparable whistleblower rights by passing the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act: “Since 2000, Congress has passed 12 'best practice' whistleblower laws protecting workers at government contractors and various corporate sectors," said Devine. "If Congress is serious about fighting government fraud, waste and abuse, it will finish a more modest overhaul of federal whistleblowers rights that has languished since 1999. The job won’t be done until we protect those charged with enforcing food safety laws.”
The impetus for Congress to address these protections evolved largely in response to a wave of foodborne illness outbreaks in recent years. FIC hears from countless whistleblowers who desperately want to expose threats to public health, but lack the protections needed to safeguard against retaliation. This bill contains the first corporate whistleblower protections enacted specifically for the food industry, covering any employee, officer, or contractor who refuses to violate the FDA safety regulations, or provides evidence of such violations to proper authorities -- including supervisors or members of Congress.
Specifically, the law "establishes whistleblower protections for employees of entities involved in the manufacturing, processing, packing, transporting, distribution, reception, holding, or importation of food who provide information relating to any violation of the FFDCA." (The FFDCA, or Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, is the 1938 law that gives the FDA most of its food regulatory power).
Situations where corporate workers will now enjoy protections include:
- A line worker who is demoted for refusing to package eggs s/he reasonably believes could be contaminated with salmonella
- A peanut butter plant manager who is fired for providing FDA negative pathogen test results to FDA inspectors
- A trucker who refuses to transport imported goods that don’t meet safety standards
If retaliated against, after exhausting administrative remedies (win or lose), the employee can start fresh and obtain a jury trial in federal district court to obtain reinstatement and any other compensatory damages necessary to be “made whole.” The provisions cannot be canceled by preconditions for employment, such as gag orders or waiver of statutory rights for inferior substitutes such as company-controlled arbitrations.
FIC's mission is to enhance overall food integrity by facilitating truth-telling. FIC accomplishes this mission by strategically working to alter the relationship of power between the food industry and consumers; protecting the rights of those who speak out against the practices that compromise food integrity; and empowering industry whistleblowers and citizen activists. More than just food safety, food integrity implies a global perspective of food that is produced in ways consistent with community values, principles, and beliefs - from soil to plate.
Contact: Amanda Hitt, Food Integrity Campaign Director
Phone: 202.457.0034, ext. 159
Contact: Tom Devine, GAP Legal Director
Phone: 202.457.0034, ext. 124
Government Accountability Project
The Government Accountability Project is the nation’s leading whistleblower protection organization. Through litigating whistleblower cases, publicizing concerns and developing legal reforms, GAP’s mission is to protect the public interest by promoting government and corporate accountability. Founded in 1977, GAP is a non-profit, non-partisan advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.