Jan. 26, 2005
Groups Urge New Agriculture Secretary
to Listen to Whistleblower, Not Punish Him
Meat Inspectors’ Union Chairman Was Trying to Protect Consumers From Mad Cow Disease, Letter Says
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Eighteen farm, consumer and public interest groups today delivered a letter to new Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, expressing their concern about the apparent retaliation against the chairman of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals (NJC), who recently made disclosures covered by the Whistleblower Protection Act about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) rules on bovine spongiform encephalopathy, commonly known as mad cow disease.
On Dec. 8, 2004, NJC chair Charles Painter sent a letter, on behalf of the NJC (the government meat inspectors’ union), to the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), outlining concerns about the removal of “specified risk materials” (SRMs) from cattle and FSIS inspectors’ ability to enforce the export requirements for products destined for Mexico. SRMS are the nervous system tissues believed to be most likely to carry the infectious prions that cause mad cow disease.
Among his concerns: 1) Plant employees are not correctly identifying and marking animals over 30 months old, which means plant employees and government personnel further down the line are unaware that numerous parts should be removed as SRMs and these high-risk materials are entering the food supply; and 2) [Production line] inspectors are not authorized by the USDA to take actions when they see plant employees sending products that do not meet export requirements past the point on the line where they can be identified and removed.
Rather than addressing the issues raised, the USDA reacted to the letter by directing extraordinary resources to targeting the NCJ chairman and other regional union presidents:
- On Dec. 23, FSIS compliance officer appeared unannounced at the home of Painter, while he was on annual leave, to question him about the allegations in the letter.
- On Dec. 28, Painter received a notice from FSIS that he was under formal investigation.
- On Jan. 6, Painter was ordered to Washington, D.C., to be questioned for three hours by FSIS.
- On Jan. 7, seven regional council presidents for the NJC also were ordered to appear in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 11 for an interview.
“Mr. Painter offered this information to the USDA because he was concerned that the agency’s inadequate policy could put consumers in danger,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s food program. “The USDA should have been grateful, but it chose to attack the whistleblower instead of attacking the problem. Secretary Johanns has emphasized that USDA employees should be treated with ‘equality, dignity, and respect.’ We urge him to live up to those words and stop this retaliatory investigation of Mr. Painter.”
In his letter, Painter did not identify specific plants where reports had come from, because he did not know. In fact, he chose not to learn the identity of the plants so he would not be forced to disclose this information, which could allow the agency to take retaliatory action against the inspectors assigned to these plants.
“This case presents a classic example of the value and necessity of whistleblowers,” the letter from the public interest groups said. “The concerns outlined by Mr. Painter’s letter are of vital interest to consumers, especially in light of recent announcements of the discovery of two more cases of mad cow disease in Canada and the agency’s intent to re-establish imports of live animals from Canada. The public has the right to know that the reality inside meat plants is not the same as the picture being painted for the media by USDA officials in Washington, D.C.”
The groups urge Johanns to immediately investigate this incident and reconsider the decision to initiate a formal misconduct investigation of Painter. The USDA also should take steps necessary to establish an environment inside FSIS that encourages employees to disclose issues of waste, fraud or threats to public health, the groups said.
The groups signing onto the letter include the American Corn Growers Association, Cancer Prevention Coalition, Center for Food Safety, Community Nutrition Institute, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Policy Institute/Consumers Union, Creutzfeldt‑Jakob Disease Foundation, Inc., Family Farm Defenders, Government Accountability Project, Global Resource Action Center for the Environment, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Iowa Farmers Union, Lane County Food Coalition, Organic Consumers Association, Public Citizen, Safe Tables Our Priority, The Humane Society of the United States, and the Weston A. Price Foundation.