Food Industry Whistleblowers Promised Protection Under New Safety Law

The new federal food safety law has gotten plenty of attention for provisions that aim to protect the public from foodborne illnesses. But a little-noticed section of the law that is supposed to protect workers at food companies who blow the whistle on their employers may — if it is effectively enforced — also prove to be significant for consumers.

The Government Accountability Project, a watchdog group, sponsored a conference in Washington, D.C., last week to raise awareness of the first-ever private sector whistleblower protections enacted specifically for the food industry. “Whistleblowers are the informational lifeline to warn the public when government-approved food might be a public health hazard,” Tom Devine, the group’s legal director, told the Associated Press. “It occurs frequently because the regulatory system can’t hope to catch all the violations through spot checks.”

President Obama signed the Food Safety and Modernization Act last month. Section 402 of the 242-page law prohibits food companies from firing, or otherwise discriminating against, an employee who provides information to the federal government or a state attorney general about  food safety violations.

Under the law, if workers make an initial showing that an employer retaliated against them, the employer must then show with convincing evidence that it would have taken the same action even if the worker had not been a whistleblower. The Department of Labor and federal judges can reinstate fired employees and award back pay, interest, attorneys’ fees and other damages.

“Workers on the front lines should never have to hesitate to sound the alarm when they discover practices that could compromise public safety,” Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a champion of the law, said.

The law covers only food businesses regulated by the FDA, but GAP is pushing for similar legislation that would protect workers in the meatpacking and poultry industries, which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Still, whether the whistleblower provision actually will succeed in protecting food industry workers who report wrongdoing is debatable. The track record of the federal Whistleblower Protection Program, operated by the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, has come under heavy criticism for a lack of commitment to protecting whistleblowers from illegal retaliation.

As FairWarning reported in June, in recent years Congress and the Labor Department have piled many new statutes on the whistleblower program without significant increases in staffing or training. The result has been that employees anxiously waiting for their complaints to be resolved are left hanging for months because the thin corps of whistleblower investigators is overwhelmed by heavy caseloads.

Citing chronic shortages of investigators,  training and equipment, demoralized whistleblower staffers have become whistleblowers themselves, venting their frustrations to congressional aides and others.

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