One area that continues to receive a good deal of consideration in food ethics and politics is the role of industry in food safety regulatory discussions. One useful lens into whether industry has too much sway over regulation is to consider the views of those who work for regulatory agencies.

According to “Driving the Fox from the Henhouse,” a report released this month by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a number of employees with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Department of Agriculture (USDA) report that they believe public health has been harmed by their agencies deferring to business interests. 

The survey was sent to 8,000 employees and more than 1,700 responded, providing a valuable opportunity to review how these employees see the US food safety system. In the UCS report (which also provides an excellent overview of the agencies and major pieces of legislation that make up the US food safety system) the picture that emerges of the food safety system is, as UCS describes, complex:

On the one hand, [survey respondents] reported levels of political and corporate interference both at the USDA and FDA are troublingly high, many scientists claim that they are not free to discuss their findings with the media or to speak out about their agency’s work, and FDA respondents often cite insufficient resources to meet their mission. On the other hand, most survey respondents feel that the agencies are moving in the right direction and acting effectively to protect the public health.

The report details findings in a number of areas, including respondent’s views on topics like outside interference, the tendency of regulatory agency employees to work for industry before or after their tenure at regulatory agencies, thoughts on specific food threats, and proposed policy changes.

One of the themes that emerges from this latest report, as well as earlier reports by the Government Accountability Office and The Institute of Medicine, is the sense that public health would be enhanced if decisions were based on the best available science. Such efforts could include requiring food production facilities to conduct hazard analysis and implement efforts to prevent food safety episodes as well as increasing the frequency of inspections by regulators to ensure that risk control efforts are undertaken.

While surveys like the UCS report only present a snapshot of food safety questions, in the wake of continued large-scale food safety episodes, the opinions of these regulators deserve careful consideration.

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