Linda O’Risky, former global product compliance director at Mead Johnson Nutrition Co., saw a potentially serious problem at the company and said something about it, and because she did, she alleges that she lost her job.
As a result, she’s filing a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, alleging Mead Johnson terminated her employment in retaliation for her raising serious safety and compliance issues relating to the company’s manufacturing of ready-to-use infant formula.
“The case involves ready-to-use formula for babies. The concern was that the seals were allegedly defective, which was known by the company to the point where they destroyed over a million units of the formula, because of possible spoilage,” says attorney Michael A. Filoromo, III, a partner with Katz, Marshall & Banks, LLP, who is handling the lawsuit. “Her concern went beyond that. When a seal is defective, you don’t know what’s getting into the product from the time it leaves the plant to the time someone consumes it and can cause more harm than just run-of-the-mill spoilage.”
O’Risky, who worked with Mead Johnson and its predecessor for more than 25 years, alleges that in March 2015, she discovered the problem and spent the next seven months trying to persuade the company to comply with FDA regulations but senior management rebuffed her claims, saying the defective seal did not constitute a food safety issue. When she persisted with her concerns, she was fired.
“Part of the reason we feel really strongly about it is it’s a very vulnerable population, very young babies and some of them may be compromised in some way,” Filoromo says. “They were focusing on profits instead of taking the precautionary steps necessary. Maybe no one was ultimately hurt, but that’s not the point. There are reasons these regulations and precautions are in place and it’s important people like Linda speak up and don’t suffer retaliation as a result.”
The complaint alleges that Mead Johnson violated the whistleblower protections of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, and the Dodd-Frank Act, and that firing O’Risky’s was an illegal retaliatory discharge under the law.
“From our position it’s important because people in her position who have first-hand knowledge of the kinds of potential safety risks alleged in the complaint really are on the front line in terms of trying to protect the public from potentially dangerous food,” Filoromo says. “When people speak out about it and are retaliated against, it has a chilling affect not just on them, but on other people who also might want to speak up. It’s important to vindicate the rights of people who face that retaliation for trying to do the right thing.”
Amanda Hitt, director of the Government Accountability Project Food Integrity Campaign, says whistleblower protections of the FSMA make it possible for protected employees to safely speak out against violations of law/regulation, waste, fraud, abuse of power, and mismanagement without fear of retaliation.
“Private sector employees desperately need these protections,” she says. “Corporations have proven that they cannot adequately self-regulate. As corporations grow in power and their regulatory oversight decreases, empowered employees play a pivotal role in protecting the integrity of our food. In some ways, the employees become ‘deputized’ to guard our food in absence of federal and state regulators.”
Moreover, in the industrial food system, the government cannot be in all places at all times so whistleblowers become the people’s eyes and ears—alerting us to wrongdoing in food safety, animal welfare, environmental safety, and government transparency concerns.
The complaint is currently pending and is waiting for Mead Johnson to respond, although the company did issue a release denying any risk or wrongdoing.
“We’re looking for our client to be compensated for the financial reputational harm that she suffered and that the company holds itself accountable for its actions and taking action against someone who spoke up for food safety and about non-compliance with FDA regulations,” Filoromo says.