The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has released a report, “Driving the Fox from the Henhouse: Improving Oversight of Food Safety at the FDA and USDA,” that provides the results of a March 2010 survey of 8,000 food-safety agency employees. Conducted at Iowa State University’s Center for Survey Statistics, the questionnaire solicited responses from 1,700 workers at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), who evidently reported that corporate and government interference “remains strong” in agency decision-making.
The report highlights the 54 percent of respondents who reported “that the weight agencies give to political interests… is ‘too high,’” as well as the 34 percent who made similar statements about business interests. The findings also note that approximately one-quarter of respondents claimed to have “frequently or occasionally” experienced situations where either corporations or members of Congress “have forced the withdrawal or significant modification of [an agency] policy or action designed to protected consumers or public health.” In addition, 59 percent of participants with advanced degrees allegedly “disagreed or strongly disagreed that they are currently ‘allowed to speak to the public and the news media about my scientific research findings, regardless of the level of controversy on the topic.’”
According to UCS’s analysis, “interference with science can range from the explicit (but rare) rewriting of scientific conclusions to subtler but more common abuses such as the selective use of data or the editing of agency documents so as to weaken them. Survey respondents also reported that public health had been harmed by corporate influence in particular—either through the withholding of needed information from government or through industry’s lobbying to withdraw or modify certain agency actions.” The report suggests that congressional reforms of the food safety system should include safeguards to “make such abuses of science more difficult to perpetrate and easier to discover.”
Noting that foodborne illness has increased in recent years, the report also calls for “[e]xecutive branch reforms—aimed at protecting government scientists, increasing transparency and accountability, and restoring scientific integrity—. . . to combat the political and corporate interference” at these agencies. As one UCS spokesperson told reporters, “What we found is that action is needed to curtail interference in science, both political and that driven by the private sector. We have two very different agencies give very identical responses, and this suggests the need for broad reform.” See The Los Angeles Times, September 14, 2010.