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Survey Finds Undue Influence On Food Safety

Scientific Integrity: Corporate pressure on federal food agencies is a serious problem, respondents say

by Britt E. Erickson
September 13, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 38

Credit: Newscom
In the wake of a nationwide egg recall, a survey finds that corporate influence on food safety agencies remains strong.
Credit: Newscom
In the wake of a nationwide egg recall, a survey finds that corporate influence on food safety agencies remains strong.

Hundreds of food safety professionals at the Food & Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture believe that undue corporate influence is a major problem at their agencies, according to the results of a survey released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Although respondents said that scientific integrity had improved under the Obama Administration, the improvements were characterized as very small.

More than 1,700 FDA and USDA employees participated in the survey, and most of them had worked at their agency for at least 10 years. More than 620 (38%) of them agreed or strongly agreed that "public health has been harmed by agency practices that defer to business interests," and 330 respondents (27%) claimed that in the past year they had personally experienced "instances where public health has been harmed by businesses withholding food safety information from agency investigators." In addition, more than 300 respondents (25%) said that in the past year they had personally observed industry forcing their agency to withdraw or modify a policy or action.

UCS, a nonprofit advocacy group, is hoping the survey results will prompt the Senate to take immediate action on a food safety bill (S. 510) that has been waiting for several months for a floor vote. The Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions committee approved S. 510 in November 2009, and the House of Representatives passed its version of the bill (H.R. 2749) in July 2009 with strong bipartisan support (C&EN, July 6, 2009, page 20).

The legislation would require food manufacturers to conduct a science-based hazard analysis of their operations and apply a preventive control plan. It would also increase the frequency of FDA inspections and require the development of an electronic system to trace food through the system. More than 70% of survey respondents indicated their support for such reforms.

UCS is also using the survey results to urge the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP) to release its scientific integrity plan. "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," Francesca Grifo, director of the scientific integrity program at UCS, said in a statement.

OSTP released principles on scientific integrity in March 2009, but Grifo and many others have been waiting for OSTP to issue an actual implementation plan with benchmark goals. OSTP's director John P. Holdren told a group of advisors at a recent meeting of the President's Council of Advisors on Science & Technology that he hopes to release such a plan by the end of the year.

UCS is hoping the plan will include better whistleblower protections and ensure that scientists and inspectors have the right to speak to the media and the public about their work. The group is also asking that agencies be required to release visitor logs that show with whom agency management met. Such reforms "would help improve food safety," Grifo stressed.

Michael R. Taylor, FDA's deputy commissioner for foods, says he welcomes UCS's call for strengthening the agency's authorities and resources. "FDA's leadership team is committed to keeping science at the forefront of our food safety program and, with support from Congress, building a public-health-oriented food safety system that meets the public's high expectations."


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