Congress Passes Food Safety Whistleblower Protections

New legislation designed to improve protections for whistleblowers employed by the federal government, including food safety inspectors, was passed by the U.S. Senate on November 13 and now awaits President Obama’s signature.

The Government Accountability Project’s Food Integrity Campaign called the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act “the strongest federal whistleblower protections in history.”

Among other provisions, the law clarifies that whistleblowers are protected for challenging the consequences of government policy decisions, protects government scientists who challenge censorship, and closes loopholes like the one that protected a whistleblower only if he or she were the first to report misconduct.

As an example of an employee who would be protected by the new law’s provisions, the FIC cited Dean Wyatt, DVM, a USDA Food Safety Inspection Service veterinarian who was temporarily demoted and later transferred after reporting humane-handling violations at plants in Oklahoma and Vermont.

The WPEA passed both chambers of Congress by unanimous consent. “Anything that gets that much bipartisan support has got to be a good thing,” said David Acheson, MD, former chief medical officer at FSIS and associate commissioner for foods at the FDA who now oversees the food and import safety practice at the consulting firm Leavitt Partners. “There are already provisions in FSMA about improving whistleblower protection for the private sector; arguably, this is dragging the public sector up to the same level.”

Dr. Acheson suggested that the food safety arena is one in which these protections may be less necessary than in other government areas, particularly within the FDA. “In the FDA, the private sector doesn’t develop such strong relationships with the food safety inspectorate,” he said. “On the USDA side, it’s different, as that agency has inspectors on site all the time, which can create a different dynamic. From a public health perspective, I don’t see a down side to this law.”

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