A new survey today is suggesting that some food safety problems that led to recalls of more than 5 million eggs and numerous other products could be because government scientists felt pressure from political and business to "go along."
The survey was conducted starting in March by the Union of Concerned Scientists of 1,700 scientists and inspectors who work in the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
According to the survey, 38% of the scientists agreed or strongly agreed that "public health has been harmed by agency practices that defer to business interests; 27% said they had personally experienced "instances where public health has been harmed by businesses withholding food safety information from agency investigators" in the past year; and 25% said they personally experienced corporate interests forcing their agency to either withdraw or significantly modify a policy or action designed to protect consumers in the past year.
"Action is needed to curtail interference," said Francesa Grifo, director of the group's Scientific Integrity Program. "It is time for the administration to take on the scientific integrity issues."
She said while the Obama administration had announced a policy of being guided by scientific principles early in the administration, the survey indicates the federal departments haven't fully followed suit.
"We have had wonderful and fabulous words, but not enough action," she said.
The surveys were accompanied by notes from some of the anonymous scientists.
"I have seen multiple instances where the best science is suppressed to avoid making government agencies look bad. It has not been business groups or consumer groups suppressing the best science but high-ranking career employees," said one USDA employee.
An FDA employee was quoted as saying, "People who don't 'tow the line' or 'go along' are neutralized and are not allowed much influence."
The survey comes as Congress itself begins looking at some of the issues behind the recent recall of 5 million eggs from several Iowa farms. The House Energy and Commerce Committee has a hearing next week on the issue. The Senate next week could approve a measure that gives the FDA additional authority to assure that products remain healthy.
Grifo said the survey began long before the latest recall. It was conducted as the Senate delayed action on the legislation.
"We set out to do this survey because in the current debate over food safety, we felt there was one voice that was missing," she said. "That was the voice of these people at these very important agencies."
She said the survey showed that while the pressure continues it has dropped slightly in the last year.
In a statement read at a press conference, Dr. Dean Wyatt, a USDA veterinarian who oversees federal slaughter house inspectors, said his agency regularly punishes inspectors for writing up legitimate safety violations.
"Upper level management does not adequately support field inspectors and the actions they take to protect the food supply," said Wyatt. "Not only is there lack of support, but there's outright obstruction, retaliation and abuse of power."
He also said that some production lines operate so quickly that it's impossible to inspect everything.
"Many poultry plants exceed one hundred birds per minute. Inspectors tell me they can only stand back and watch the birds fly by," he said.
The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service in a statement said it hoped to improve.
"We can and must do a better job of ensuring the safety of meat and poultry products regulated by USDA as there is no more fundamental function of government than protecting consumers from harm," the agency wrote. "Food safety is the sole function of our Food Safety Inspection Service and no other considerations should detract from carrying out their mission."
The FDA did not return calls for comment.
Study: Politics trumps science in food inspections