In yet another move against farmers, the FDA recently took a "no holds barred" approach to being adversarial to farmers. They attacked one of their own.
If you were wondering if the FDA was your friend as a farmer...it looks like 'no'. The move looks to be an attempt to rid the agency of anyone who might be sympathetic to farmers.
FDA Memo Threatens Agency’s Farmer Employees
12/25/2010 2:00 PM M.P. Taylor
Just months short of his January retirement from the Food and Drug Administration, Lonnie Luther received word that his employer deemed his part-time farming operation a conflict of interest. He had, the memo said, 60 days to either sell his farm or quit his job.
Luther wasn’t alone. In fact, every FDA employee with any interest in farming received the same memo. And while FDA officials have put a hold on the order while the ethics rule on which it is based makes its way up the bureaucratic ladder for top-level reconsideration, employees fear the worst.
“I feared they might strip me of my retirement annuity” for refusing to sell or quit, and for going public with the memo, Luther said. “I still have anxieties and fears about what they might come up with.”
An FDA official, who would not speak to Lancaster Farming specifically about Luther’s case and could offer only background information on the policy, said the agency’s ethics rules are no different from those of any other government entity, although clearly they have never been enforced.
At issue is a new interpretation of the 10-year-old Supplemental Standards for Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Department of Health and Human Services. Should an “FDA regulated product” apply to farm crops and food animals?
Vincent Tolino, the ethics and integrity director who wrote the sell-or-quit memo, decided it did, although he told the Maryland Gazette newspapers that “there was really no exact point when an interpretation changed.”
But change it did and, in his memo to Luther, Tolino stated that “because the ... operations you are involved in are significantly regulated by FDA, you are prohibited from retaining this financial interest.”
Luther, a special assistant to the director of the FDA’s Office of New Animal Drug Evaluation, has been with the agency since 1974 and the owner of a Damascus, Md., farm for almost as long. He said that every year he has filed papers declaring his interest in the farm, where he and wife, Mina, raise corn, soybeans, hay, beef cattle and show chickens.
Where, he asked FDA officials, is the conflict of interest? It was a question to which he said he received no satisfactory answer.
He has never, he insists, attempted to parlay his position with FDA into an unfair marketing advantage for his small farming operation. He owns the farm “because this is how I want to live. I grew up on a farm and wanted to continue that lifestyle.”
Katherine Weld, a colleague of Luther’s who is nowhere near retirement, raises meat goats on her 26-acre farm just outside Frederick, Md. She admits to being “off the deep end” over the memo and is planning to leave the agency if it ultimately becomes necessary.
“I’m not going to give up this lifestyle,” she said of the farm. “I like the hard work and satisfaction of raising an animal, and I have started to look for jobs.”
Like Luther, she sees no conflict of interest in her farming operation and job.
“I’m not saying the meat is FDA-approved, and I don’t tell anyone I work for the FDA,” she said. “Using that information for marketing would be a problem, and it would be wrong.”
However, she said the ethics rule has been bent so far that “you can’t sell a tomato out of your backyard garden,” and she also believes it would bar children from participating in 4-H activities.
“This isn’t Enron,” she said of the alleged ethics violations.
Although Weld doesn’t personally know of any employee who has sold a farm, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened since the memo was sent to FDA employees nationwide.
While they wait for the bureaucracy to work its will on the ethics rule interpretation, they all live in “fear the ax is going to fall,” she said.
Since so many of the agency’s most valued professionals may choose to quit, she thinks the agency is making a big mistake in beefing up its ethics rule interpretation.
“If they’re afraid of losing their institutional knowledge, pushing people out the door is not the way to keep them,” she said.
Luther is far less diplomatic in his assessment of the situation, calling the agency’s ethics staff “a bunch of idiots who have decided to exercise their intelligence. It’s just nonsense, unbelievable stuff.”