The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA) passed the House of Representatives in late September and the Senate this week, and is being sent to President Obama for his signature.
This long overdue legislation overturns many loopholes and provides critically important upgrades to weak, current protections.
Passage of the WPEA plays a significant role in food safety oversight, as it better protects those charged with enforcing food safety laws – including U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) veterinarians and inspectors, as well as Food and Drug Administration (FDA) employees. Over the past several years, FIC has heard from countless federal whistleblowers that desperately want to expose food industry wrongdoing or threats to public health, but failed to come forward due to a lack of strong whistleblower protections, which are necessary to safeguard against retaliation.
"America's food just got a lot safer," said FIC Director Amanda Hitt. "Government workers who serve as the public's watchdog are now themselves safer from retaliation. Federal food safety employees have finally been deputized to protect the food supply."
Under the new legislation's improvements, a federal employee is now protected even when s/he:
- is not the first person who discloses given misconduct
- blows the whistle while carrying out job duties
- makes a disclosure to a supervisor
- discloses the consequences of a policy decision, or
- does not have "irrefragable proof" (defined as "undeniable, incontestable, incontrovertible proof") of government misconduct.
For a fuller list of protections, see GAP's earlier press release about the law's passing here.
What Types of Whistleblowing Actions by Federal Food Workers are now Protected?
There are a number of types of workers and disclosures that will now receive solid and enforceable whistleblower protections. They include:
- A public health veterinarian reporting to his/her USDA supervisor that a slaughterhouse repeatedly violated humane handling regulations
- An FDA inspector who tries to expose falsification of Salmonella records at a cantaloupe farm
- A Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) district office manager reporting frequent complaints by FSIS poultry inspectors that increased line speeds have made it impossible for workers to pull all potentially contaminated birds off the line
- An FDA researcher whose attempts at publishing new findings on a controversial food ingredient are stifled by upper management
Past Examples Where the WPEA Could Have Made a Difference
Former USDA public health veterinarian and GAP client, the late Dr. Dean Wyatt, would have benefited greatly from these enhanced protections had he access to them years ago when he continually tried to blow the whistle on slaughterhouse animal abuse. Instead of listening to Dr. Wyatt, USDA supervisors transferred him to another slaughterhouse across the country and imposed other forms of retaliation as attempts to silence his concerns. Wyatt was only vindicated when an outside group took undercover video of wrongdoing that he alleged.
With better safeguards against intimidation, former FDA Public Health Service officer Renee Dufault may not have felt obligated to leave her post after trying to reveal her findings of mercury in foods containing high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
Hitt concluded by referencing the next steps in advocating for food worker rights, stating: "We're not done yet – these protections only cover federal food employees. The 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act protects corporate workers exposing problems with FDA-regulated products. However, USDA-regulated product industry workers still lack protections. These workers – who monitor our beef, poultry, pork and egg products – still cannot safely speak up for the public welfare."