Government food safety officials say that when companies influence their work, the public's health suffers, according to a new survey.
Of the surveyed employees of the Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture, 38 percent, or 620 respondents, said that the public's health is harmed by agency practices that are influenced by businesses, according to the survey by the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists.
And 27 percent of respondents to another question said they witnessed events in which public health was harmed by businesses withholding information from agency investigators.
Ten percent of respondents reported they were asked by their bosses to exclude or change information and conclusions in a scientific document, and 9 percent said managers asked them to provide misleading or inaccurate information to the public, media and government, the researchers said.
Recent recalls of everyday foods, such as eggs and pet food, have highlighted the problems, said Francesca Grifo, director of the Scientific Integrity Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. If nothing changes, there will only be more public health risks and food recalls in the future, she added.
This is "an issue that matters to all of us ... because the most vulnerable are the people most severely affected," Grifo said. "From eggs to spinach to ground beef, [food poisoning is] an illness we recover from, at best, but with some inconvenience."
Last month, 380 million eggs from two Iowa farms were recalled after being linked to 1,400 cases of salmonella poisoning. And last year, a salmonella outbreak in peanut butter from contaminated Peanut Corp. of America plants sickened 700 people and led to nine deaths. In 2007, salmonella was tied to ConAgra Foods' pot pies, which sickened 475 people.
The anonymous 44-question survey was distributed to more than 8,000 food-safety scientists and inspectors, and about 1,700 responded. More than half had been with their agency for more than 10 years, according to the researchers from the Iowa State University Center for Survey Statistics, who conducted the survey on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The majority of respondents said that safety would be improved at food plants if hazard analyses were conducted, if an electronic monitoring system was implemented and if the FDA increased its frequency of food safety inspections.
The Senate is currently considering a food-safety bill sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill). The bill would allow the FDA to test for pathogens and trace outbreaks, as well as grant power to the administration to recall contaminated food products and impose fines on companies that knowingly sell them. The FDA now can only request companies to make recalls.
This bill would go a long way to keeping agencies accountable, Grifo said.