With outbreaks left and right, our food system is certainly in need of better oversight. Government officials need to resist BigAgra lobbyists’ charms and focus on protecting the citizens who put them in office. But big business, not food safety, seems to be on the mind of some House Republicans who suggest giving industry the power to inspect itself rather than spending money on funding government inspections.
A bill that recently passed the House Appropriations Committee lacks the necessary funds for our regulatory agencies to function successfully. In addition to the bill’s text, a supplemental report meant to explain the legislation includes the expansion of a controversial inspection program for U.S. meat and poultry. This pilot program, HIMP (HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project), essentially shifts the responsibility of determining our food safety from USDA inspectors to the companies themseves. Anytime the fox is guarding the henhouse we’re putting ourselves in a sticky situation.
But it gets worse – meat and poultry industry employees don’t have whistleblower rights. What if the employees charged with assuring that carcasses aren’t contaminated with feces witness a food safety problem? Without whistleblower protections, industry higher ups could easily (and often do) stifle workers’ voices.
In 2001, the Government Accountability Office strongly criticized HIMP for multiple weaknesses, and there has yet to be a thorough independent analysis of the pilot program since then. Now there is a proposal to increase the use of this program – regardless of its possible impacts on food safety. Looks like some lawmakers are more preoccupied with cutting costs upfront than preventing future illnesses.
But as food safety advocate Barbara Kowalcyk articulated, “foodborne disease is economically significant.” Preventing outbreaks and the ensuing millions of dollars spent on medical care and public health resources … that’s what saves money. Effectively funding and staffing the USDA and FDA, as well as ensuring legal protections for whistleblowers, will better equip the agencies to do just that.
Sarah Damian is Communications Manager for the Food Integrity Campaign.