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Driving the Fox from the Henhouse: Improving Oversight of Food Safety at FDA and USDA

Frequently Asked Questions

What is new about Driving the Fox from the Henhouse?
The study provides evidence that political interference with science is significant in the food safety system, with consequences for public health. The results reveal a food safety system where special interests and public officials all too often inhibit the ability of government scientists and inspectors to protect the food supply.

Our survey results indicate that political interference in science can range from explicit, but rare, rewriting of scientific conclusions to subtler but more common abuses, such as selective use of data or edits to agency documents.  Survey respondents also indicated that the public health had been harmed by corporate influence over agency actions – either through withholding needed information or by lobbying to withdraw or modify certain agency actions.

The survey results paint a complex picture of the federal food safety system.  On the one hand, the reported levels political and corporate interference at both the USDA and the FDA are troublingly high, and many FDA respondents reported insufficient resources to meet their mission. Too many agency scientists report that they are not free to discuss their findings with the media or to speak out about their agency’s work.  In other respects, survey respondents felt that the agencies were moving in the right direction and were acting effectively to protect the public health.


Why is the survey in the report not a random survey?
UCS designed this survey to allow as many FDA and USDA scientists as possible to voice their concerns about political interference at their agencies. The Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology (CSSM) at Iowa State University consulted with UCS on the survey design, conducted the survey and provided initial analysis of the results.

We received responses from 1,710 FDA and USDA scientists for a response rate of 21.6 percent, which is consistent with response rates for other surveys of this kind. Many respondents were agency veterans, as over half had worked at their respective agency for 10 years or more and nearly two-thirds worked at a level of GS-10 or higher.

Unlike a random survey, the self-selection of respondents and other unknown selection effects make it difficult to extrapolate our survey findings to the entire group of 6,000-8,000 scientists working at the FDA and USDA. Strong numbers for morale and job satisfaction give confidence that a broad cross-section of the FDA and the USDA responded to the survey – not just employees with grievances. In this report, we emphasize the raw numbers of responses to the survey questions and provide percentages as a tool for comparison. We do know from this survey that 34 percent of FDA and USDA scientists who responded have personally experienced political interference in their work in the last year.


Has political interference impacted human health?
In reducing the influence and importance of science, political interference weakens the safety of the nation’s food supply, putting the lives of the most vulnerable members of our society, the very old, very young, and those already ill.

Survey respondents indicated that the public health had been harmed by corporate influence over agency actions – either through withholding needed information or by lobbying to withdraw or modify certain agency actions.

As the food safety system moves toward a more science-based approach, it is crucial that safeguards be put in place to prevent abuses of science.


Is this problem unique to the FDA and USDA?
The problem is by no means confined to any one agency. Science has been distorted, manipulated, and suppressed on dozens of issues, from prescription drugs to endangered species. Interference is most common in agencies with regulatory authority such as USDA and FDA.

This interference can take many forms – from censorship and suppression of federal science to dissemination of inaccurate science-based information to the manipulation of scientific advice. The Union of Concerned Scientists has documented scores of examples of such abuses in our online A to Z guide to political interference in science and through our surveys of scientists at nine federal agencies.


Are the FDA and the USDA worse than the other agencies you have surveyed?
Thousands of scientists across nine agencies have expressed concerns for the health, safety, and environment of Americans as a result of the interference and the impact it has had on their work.

Each agency has unique patterns of interference. That said, UCS surveys of federal agencies have consistently found large numbers of scientists who:

• Fear retaliation for speaking concerns about their agency’s mission-driven work outside and even inside the agency;

• Are not free to communicate their research findings to the media or the public;

• Report their research findings have been changed by political appointees both within and outside of their agency; and

• Are disheartened by the level of interference at their agency.

Scientists feel that federal science agencies could be more effective:

• 285 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists could not agree that the USFWS was effective in recovering endangered species.

• 685 scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency could not agree that the agency was moving in the right direction.

• 182 climate scientists said the research environment at their agency for climate science was worse than five before the survey was conducted in 2006.


How has the scientific community responded?
As the list of examples of political interference in science has grown, so has concern from diverse groups of Americans, from ordinary citizens to members of Congress to the nation’s leading newspapers. Particular concern comes from the scientific community, as scientists know first hand that a healthy respect for independent science has been the foundation of American prosperity and contributed greatly to our quality of life.

In 2004, 62 renowned scientists and science advisors signed a scientist statement on scientific integrity, denouncing political interference in science and calling for a restoration of scientific integrity to federal policy making; the statement was subsequently endorsed by more than 15,000 scientists nationwide. In February 2008, many of the same scientists issued “Scientific Freedom and the Public Good”, a document that urges Congress and the next president to create conditions conducive to a thriving federal scientific enterprise. For more information, see www.ucsusa.org/scientificfreedom.


What does UCS recommend to restore scientific integrity to FDA and USDA science and policy making?
We urge both the Administration and Congress to take action this year. Reforms aimed at restoring scientific integrity are needed as well as a strong food safety law. American families should not have to wait any longer to get the protections they expect and deserve.

An effective food safety law should:

• Give FDA and USDA full authority to mandate food recalls and give FDA more resources to protect food safety and increase the frequency of FDA inspections and shorten the interval between inspections. Ideally, all food facilities should be inspected annually, with high-risk or problem facilities inspected every six months.
• Include a mandate from Congress that the FDA develop performance standards, based on the best available science on epidemiology and health information, with the goal of eliminating, or at least substantially reducing, hazards to public health in the food supply. Food facilities should develop a safety plan that conforms to these standards and identifies potential risks, how to prevent them, and how to most effectively address problems that arise.
• Require that the FDA have access to all pertinent food company records to determine whether a food product has been adulterated or misbranded, and that those records be accessible in an electronic format. Viewing records should be part of the routine inspection process, and would not require a written request from federal regulators to the company.
• Significantly increase surveillance of food imports. At present, only about 1 percent of our food imports are subject to federal inspections. The USDA more rigorously inspects imported meat and poultry, with exports not permitted into the country until the agency’s Food Safety Inspection Service determines the country’s safety standards are at least as high as the U.S.
• Protect federal and private sector whistleblowers in the food industry who expose unsafe food conditions.

In a scientific integrity memorandum in March of 2009, President Obama asked the Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop a plan aimed at ensuring the integrity of federal science. While the memo lays out guiding principles to improve transparency in policymaking, ensure that well-qualified individuals are appointed to science positions, and protect those who expose abuse of science, survey results document ongoing political interference one year later.

The Obama administration should:
• Immediately release a scientific integrity plan with specific guidelines and benchmarks.
• Open up federal science and decision making to scrutiny from Congress and the public is an important, and inexpensive, means of exposing and ending political interference in science.
• Allow scientists and researchers to express their personal views outside of a few narrow restrictions (such as releasing classified or proprietary information). Provided that a scientist makes an explicit disclaimer that they are speaking as a private citizen and are not seeking to represent official agency policy, they should be allowed to speak freely about their research and to offer their scientific opinions—even in situations where the research may be controversial or have implications for agency policy
• Give scientists and researchers the right to review, amend, and comment publicly on the final version of any document or publication that significantly relies on their research, identifies them as an author or contributor, or purports to represent their scientific opinion.
• Release official agency documents or scientific reports that form the basis of policy when draft policies leave agencies for interagency or OMB review.
• Require federal agencies to institute a transparency policy for meetings with outside entities under which the agency posts on its website a complete record of all meetings including with for-profit and not-for-profit organizations, other agencies, and individuals (with the exception of meetings related to national security).
• Government employees writing or enforcing regulations should disclose all conflicts of interest and any previous employment that might affect or appear to affect their ability to independently do their job. They should be required to recuse themselves from decisions involving a former employer.

 

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