Empowering whistleblowers who are on the front lines of the food supply is the best way to keep the system transparent and wrongdoers accountable. But until a culture is created in which blowing the whistle is expected and rewarded, the dire situation of secrecy and repeat violations without accountability that currently exists will only continue.
According to a USDA inspector general report and records recently acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request, the USDA is failing at its job to hold violators of the Humane Slaughter Act accountable.
This isn’t much of a surprise given what many USDA inspectors have shared with FIC regarding how they are treated when they try to report wrongdoing. Meat inspectors and veterinarians face routine retaliation for simply doing their job (raising concerns and submitting noncompliance reports). As the Ethics Resource Center concluded from its 2013 National Business Ethics Survey, “High retaliation rates discourage reporting and make it harder for organizations to identify and root out bad behavior.” No doubt that is the case for federal employees who have witnessed conflicts of interest between the agency and the industry it’s supposedly overseeing.
Is it a surprise that the USDA Des Moines district has the worst record of humane slaughter violations of the 10 USDA districts? It’s headquartered in a state with a dangerous Ag Gag law, effectively eliminating the safest means for whistleblowers to expose abuse without fear of retaliation: undercover video. When USDA inspector Jim Schrier reported slaughter violations, undercover video could have protected him from being wrongly moved more than 120 miles away from his home and family.
This week a judge will hear arguments on Idaho’s Ag Gag law in a lawsuit aimed at overturning the measure. FIC has submitted an amicus brief supporting the lawsuit. Former USDA veterinarian Dr. Daryl Jacobs also opposes Idaho’s legislation, and has acknowledged “whistleblowers need video to validate and substantiate what they’re saying.”
The persistent push for these laws that further silence whistleblowers who already face a hostile environment when they come forward is evidence that we still have a long way to go in creating a culture that values truth-telling. Only then can USDA adequately carry out its oversight role, bad actors be held accountable, and consumers feel confident in their food’s integrity.
Sarah Damian is Communications Manager for the Food Integrity Campaign.