Woman's spine Dear FDA and USDA: this is called a spine. Heard of it? Photo courtesy of Katie Cowden via Flickr 

UPDATE: Since I wrote this post Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Henry Reid has announced the death of the food-safety bill. He told Congressional Quarterly that the Senate won’t “be able to get this done before we go home for the elections.” Bill Marler, a prominent attorney who represents clients against food corporations in food-safety cases, told AOL News that the bill’s collapse means “we’ll likely never see [food-safety reform] again, at least for a generation.” To me, this grim news puts even more pressure on President Obama to purge the FDA and USDA of the pervasive industry influence described below.

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In the wake of the massive egg recall, the Senate’s long-awaited food-safety bill is being held back by a GOP senator on specious fiscal concerns

A lot of food-safety advocates are rallying behind the bill [PDF], which would give the FDA increased power to recall tainted products (currently, all recalls are “voluntary”) and more resources for inspections. (It would do nothing to affect the safety of the meat supply, which falls under the USDA’s jurisdiction.) I guess I agree with the food-safety advocates on the Senate bill, so long as the Tester amendment, which would exempt small farms from some of the most onerous rules, is passed along with it.

But I wonder if the bill really has what it takes to cure what ails the food safety system. No doubt, a pittance of both resources and legal muscle impedes the FDA from properly overseeing safety at massive food-production facilities. But as a recent poll by the Union of Concerned Scientists and Iowa State University shows, resources and legal might aren’t all that food-safety regulators lack. They’re also missing the backbone to stand up to powerful industry players.

The pollsters got 1,700 USDA and FDA employees to respond to their questionnaire. The results are chilling:

Hundreds of survey respondents identified undue corporate influence as a major problem. More than 620 respondents (38 percent) agreed or strongly agreed that “public health has been harmed by agency practices that defer to business interests.” … And more than 300 respondents (25 percent) said they personally experienced corporate interests forcing their agency to withdraw or significantly modify a policy or action designed to protect consumers in the past year. When asked that same question about Congress and non-governmental interests, more than 260 respondents (24 percent) and more than 240 respondents (22 percent) said yes, respectively.

Most respondents wished to remain anonymous for obvious reasons. But one, Dean Wyatt, a USDA veterinarian who manages the agency’s slaughterhouse inspectors, spoke bluntly. “Upper-level management does not adequately support field inspectors and the actions they take to protect the food supply,” Wyatt told the pollsters. “Not only is there lack of support, but there’s outright obstruction, retaliation, and abuse of power.”

And evidently, data-fudging to protect industry interests is almost routine:

… 190 respondents (16 percent) said they witnessed officials selectively or incompletely using data to justify a specific regulatory outcome. One-hundred-and-five respondents (10 percent) said agency decision makers inappropriately asked them to exclude or alter information or conclusions in an agency scientific document. Ninety-eight respondents (9 percent) said agency managers asked them to provide incomplete, inaccurate or misleading information to the public, regulated industry, media or government officials.  

A lot of folks hoped that industry influence over watchdog agencies like FDA and USDA would decrease dramatically after the exit of pro-industry President George W. Bush. Unhappily, that hasn’t been the case. The poll detected only a “very small” reduction in industry influence under Obama.

The Senate food safety bill [PDF] contains a provision giving strong whistleblower protection to employees of food processors. That’s important, but insufficient. The Union of Concerned Scientists survey shows clearly that even when industry whistleblowers step forward, they are too often ignored by government would-be watchdogs. I’m with the Government Accountability Project — it’s time to strengthen the Whistleblower Protection Act, which ostensibly shields federal employees who report agency misconduct, but has become watered down and ineffectual.

As for President Obama, he vowed after his election to purge federal watchdog agencies of industry influence. This poll demonstrates he has so far failed to clean up the food-safety agencies. If Obama’s pledge was serious — several of his food policy appointments call his commitment into question – the UCS report will spur him to crack down on the continuing industry hijacking of our food-safety system, something the food safety bill doesn’t address.