We received the following question from Kat:
"Many of the experts’ responses indicate that the responsibility for monitoring food safety and standards, including the effects of GM food and pesticides on human health and living conditions for animals, rests with government agencies such as the EPA, the FDA, and the USDA. Given the frequency of corporate executives in government positions, especially in the food and agriculture industries, how heavily are food policies and legislature influenced by corporate interests? To what extent is there a conflict of interest and how can we be sure that food policies and legislation are in the best interest of the consumer rather than the corporation?"
To answer the question, we engaged two experts - one with a focus on public policy and another with experience serving in Washington. Here are their responses:
Dr. H. Scott Hurd, Associate Professor of Veterinary Diagnostic and Production Animal Medicine, Iowa State University and former Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said:
"This is a valid question to ask – and one that’s complex to answer. What I can tell you, based on my experience as the former Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and 12 years as a USDA Civil Servant, is that no matter who is talking, corporations, special interest groups, individuals or others, there is always a particular point they are trying to get across – so no one is without a conflict of interest.
When it comes to companies versus special interest or consumer groups, they are EACH likely to gain if their requests are met. For example, companies may be able to sell more products or save resources in the production process, whereas special interest groups can increase fund-raising revenue by creating concern around a particular topic.
To address the question regarding the number of corporate executives in government positions, it is actually very rare that individuals from corporations move to government leadership roles, unless they are in the position because of a political appointment (i.e. they are asked by an elected official to serve as a resource because of their expertise). In that case, they are in agreement that the appointed will provide specific insight based on their expertise, as well as share a political viewpoint. However, these political appointees represent a very small portion of all Federal employees (approximately less than 1%).
Regardless of which perspective a person represents, the good thing about our political system is that there is room for all opinions to be considered. Our rule-making process is long, transparent and provides many opportunities for everyone's input. When a challenge comes up, multiple viewpoints are shared from corporations, special interest groups, federal employees (if they happen to be impacted), etc., to ensure each angle of the issue is known. Then there is a push and pull that takes place to land somewhere in the middle of everyone’s interests.
When I was serving in my appointment, there were extreme measures taken to ensure no 'one side' got more influence than the next. For example, my meeting schedule was publically available. This ensured that corporations and special interests alike knew who I was talking to and when, so they were sure to have equal face time."
Dr. Robert Paarlberg, Betty Freyhof Johnson Class of 1944 Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College and Adjunct Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, and Associate at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, said:
"There is no question that food policies are heavily influenced by corporate interests. For example, consider the recent legislation in Congress, pushed by the food industry, to undercut efforts at USDA to prevent pizza from being classified as a vegetable. But when it comes to the safety of foods, this corporate influence isn't all bad. Since food companies know they will lose money if unsafe food reaches the market, they have generally been in favor of tight food safety regulations. The new food safety bill that passed Congress in 2010 was strongly supported by the Grocery Manufacturers Association. So, corporate influence does not always make our food supply healthy, but it does help to make our food supply safe."