By BRUCE BOYERS
Within the food industry—as with just about any industry—being a whistleblower can be a risky business. You see and report something occurring inside your company that isn’t healthy or environmentally safe, and you are then subject to friction and ostracism within your organization—if you are able to keep your job at all. Public health attorney Amanda Hitt is the Food Integrity Campaign director for the Government Accountability Project (GAP), and she has made it her life’s work to ensure it is safe for whistleblowers to come forward.
Whistleblowers Key to Cases
Whistleblowers have been pivotal in exposing the more egregious violations in the food industry. Kit Foshee was a quality assurance manager at Beef Products, Inc. (BPI), who came to the Government Accountability Project for help in bringing attention to concerns he had about his company and their ammoniated beef product (colloquially known as “pink slime”). GAP authored a widely published op-ed on the subject, which ultimately led to front-page articles in major media. Foshee had already been terminated by BPI for refusing to participate in its knowing misrepresentation of the product to the USDA.
Another famous GAP case was that of Food Lion, a supermarket chain that was exposed when two ABC undercover reporters, posing as Food Lion employees, videotaped with hidden cameras unsanitary practices in the company’s handling of meat. The case began when Food Lion staff, seeking a way to expose the practices, started working with GAP. The resultant wide publicity informed consumers and brought further public attention to the issue of how our food is processed.
This is the type of whistleblowing that the Food Integrity Campaign is working to protect. A series of state bills that have come to be known as “ag gag,” which impose criminal penalties for videotaping or audio recording within farms or food processing operations, are currently being fought by FIC and GAP. In some states laws have been passed and are being challenged, while in others they have not yet been passed and are being opposed. “These are anti-whistleblower statutes,” Hitt told Organic Connections. “The reason we view it that way—and many others in coalition with us agree—is that if you have a whistleblower who needs his or her disclosure to be validated, we very often see the use of recording devices to do that. Many times we can’t vindicate these people or validate their claims without this sort of mechanical third party—the use of a camera or recording device.”
USDA Inspectors Blow Whistle
Whistleblowing isn’t confined to private industry. Recently government meat inspectors were deeply concerned but unable to speak out about the results of new legislation that both cut down the number of inspectors and sped up the lines to be inspected. “There’s a new ‘modernization of poultry inspection’ proposal that’s in the works by the USDA,” Hitt explained. “The inspectors that are affected by this are currently experiencing this speed-up. They very much want to preserve the safety and integrity of poultry in the United States but now can’t stop this stuff from flying down the line. At the same time, there is a reduction in the inspectors; 800 positions are in jeopardy. Inspectors can’t do what they’re there to do. They’re upset about this and they want consumers to know about it.
“These inspectors were unable to speak out, but we offered them the opportunity to do so through anonymous affidavits. We gave that information to the USDA, and also to the New York Times and many others. Ultimately ABC picked it up as well.”
Creating Protective Laws
Much of the work FIC is engaged in involves creating legislation that will protect future whistleblowers—some of whom now aren’t protected at all. “I’ll give you an example of one of the most difficult situations for a whistleblower,” Hitt said. “Let’s say you were an undocumented worker in a pork slaughterhouse. To start with you’re paid ridiculously low wages, but the reality is you have to support your family on this. So, you’re working in a slaughter facility; you’re doing these repetitive motions and getting carpal tunnel syndrome; your back is being strained; you can barely keep up with this high-speed line (and these are especially prevalent in poultry plants right now). Then you see something coming toward you on the belt—let’s say it’s a large abscess on an animal.
“That type of thing should not happen, but if you start speaking out about these kinds of situations, you are going to draw attention to yourself. You have no power whatsoever, and in that scenario I don’t think there’d even be retaliation; it would be termination. People like that want to voice their concerns—they want to tell us things; but if push comes to shove, they just can’t come forward. And it’s the same with farmworkers. There’s a lot on the line.”
Hitt and the Food Integrity Campaign are working hard, through creating new regulations, to make sure such people can come forward. There have been instances, however, when jobs have been able to be protected. “If it is a white-collar job, there’s the possibility, especially in government, to get your job back or have some sort of lateral move within the organization,” Hitt pointed out.
There is another crucial aspect to Hitt’s work. “You have to let the public know the problems that insiders know about but the general public doesn’t have access to,” she said. “We need to continue that, because we do it very effectively. If we have a whistleblower who knows something from the inside, we get that person out and into the media—out there and talking, their information widely available.”
It was Hitt, already working for the Government Accountability Project, who came up with and implemented the Food Integrity Campaign. “When I started here at GAP in the eighties, there was already a robust food safety program,” she related. “I began realizing, however, this is not just food safety—it’s more: it is integrity. This would mean, Is it consistent with commonly held community values and beliefs? Does it stand up to scrutiny or further observation? I was finding that our food clients were revealing aspects of the food industry, and even in the regulation of the food industry, that were just not consistent. They might be safe or unsafe—although usually unsafe—but there was always a violation of integrity. That’s what led to the creation of the Food Integrity Campaign—to address all of those issues, and to also include environmental issues, such as runoff from a hog farm. The runoff itself is not a food safety issue, but it’s destruction of the environment, which is very much a food integrity issue.”
Hitt has specifically directed her career in the direction of being proactive in public health issues. “I went through law school wanting to do something in public interest, something good for the world and something great,” she concluded. “When I got out it was kind of difficult to enter into that world; but moreover, the type of work that I was asked to do in those jobs was to clean up a mess that had already happened. Maybe it was civil liberties or environmental, but something had already happened for a lawyer to be involved. So I started thinking about it and arrived at the conclusion that I’d rather use the law to stop the bad things from happening than fix bad things by using the law.”
For more information, please visit www.foodwhistleblower.org.