On Wednesday, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued an interim final rule establishing whistleblower protections for workers in almost all sectors of the food industry who report violations under the Food Safety Modernization Act — landmark legislation signed by President Obama in 2010 that seeks to prevent food-related outbreaks before they occur, rather than responding to a foodborne illness that has already affected the public.
The new rule, which goes into effect immediately, “provides employees who disclose information about a possible violation of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act with protection against retaliation from businesses engaged in the manufacture, processing, packing, transporting, distribution, reception, holding or importation of food,” according to an OSHA press release. “This interim final rule establishes procedures, burdens of proof, remedies and statutes of limitations similar to other whistleblower protection statutes that OSHA administers.”
Illnesses stemming from diseased meat and produce send over 125,000 Americans to the hospital annually and kills 3,000 people every year. This past week, California-based Rancho Food Corp. was forced to recall nearly nine million pounds of unclean and diseased beef that were never inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), leading food giant Nestlé to subsequently recall nearly 238,000 of their Hot Pocket products that used the tainted meat.
While the whistleblower protections are a big step forward in holding food manufacturers and transporters accountable for their actions, this type of transparency isn’t available in every sector of the agricultural industry. So-called “ag gag” laws that have been passed in at least five states make it illegal for anyone outside of the food industry to report cruel and unsafe behaviors in factory farms and slaughterhouses. For instance, these laws prohibit videotaping potentially unsanitary or inhumane conditions on farms, like sows who are crammed into gestation cages.