While struggling through graduate school several years ago, I read a proverb that states: “The years slip by quickly, it’s the minutes that are long.” This certainly expresses my sentiment as I sit here, back at the University of Florida, writing the final quarterly report about the 1998–99 IFT Congressional Science Fellowship. The year indeed slipped by quickly, while many of the minutes during congressional briefings seemed to lengthen interminably. Overall, the year was enormously enlightening and succeeded in changing my once jaded view of Congress to one of admiration for the institution and respect for the staffers who make it run. Experience is a great teacher.
Activities at CRS
My final quarter at the Congressional Research Service (CRS) was spent writing several memos for staffers, attending hearings and meetings, conducting briefings, and staying on top of issues such as the proposed single food safety agency, genetically modified crops, egg safety, growth promoters in beef, development of antibiotic-resistant microorganisms, food safety appropriations, and recent foodborne disease outbreaks. This required daily scans of major news sources, the Federal Register, and specialized food-related Internet services such as Jack Cooper’s Food Industry Environmental Network and Doug Powell’s Food Safety Network. There is an abundance of information available if you know where to look.
During the final two months of the fellowship, it was possible to concentrate efforts on writing a CRS short-report titled, “Science Behind the Regulation of Food Safety: Risk Assessment and the Precautionary Principle” (CRS-RS20310). While many powerful people in Washington articulate the need to base regulations on science, there is no single, clear-cut manner in which science is used during the rule-making process. Prior to proposing rules that could have significant economic impact, federal agencies are required by both Congress and the White House to assess risks, costs, and benefits; however, there is disagreement about whether these assessments are conducted as required, and also whether these types of activities are the best way to implement policy. Some organizations argue that the federal agencies implement regulations without the necessary science-based risk assessments. Other organizations state that risk assessments should be discontinued in preference for the precautionary principle, a concept that basically allows a product to be removed from the market even without conclusive scientific proof that it is harmful. Although the precautionary principle is little known in the U.S., it has official recognition in the E.U. and other countries and is impacting international negotiations of interest to the U.S.
IFT’s Washington Presence
There is an obvious need in Washington, D.C., for credible, science-based information on food. Although there are several very effective and excellent food industry trade organizations in D.C., congressional staffers typically view them as having an industry slant on issues. Even when trade organizations go to great lengths to present balanced, impartial data to Congress, congressional staffers will often dismiss the information as biased toward industry. As IFT begins to expand its presence in Washington in the next couple of years, it has the opportunity to establish itself as the voice of science for balanced, unbiased information on food-related issues.
In Washington, perception is reality, especially on Capitol Hill. To advocate effectively in DC for food science, IFT must be viewed by federal decision-makers as objective, nonpartisan and scientifically authoritative. Examples of scientific professional societies that currently enjoy this type of image include the American Chemical Society, the American Society for Microbiology, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Establishment of a reputation for dispassionate objectivity is difficult and requires a commitment to advocacy for science even in the face of political pressure from outside forces such as industry, government agencies , or other organizations. Professional societies such as ACS, ASM, and AAAS closely guard their independence and good names. That isn’t to say that they do not work cooperatively with industry or other non-governmental organizations. They do; however, reputable societies are careful about associating their names with other organizations. A scientific professional society that is perceived as being tied to industry, or any other non-science organization, runs the risk of losing its standing in the halls of Congress as a voice of science and reason. For IFT to be an effective advocate in Washington, it must be an unequivocal and noncompromised voice for science.
Serving as the 3rd IFT Congressional Science Fellow was a life-altering event that I won’t soon forget. I am tremendously grateful for this opportunity and for the support of IFT, especially the Science Communications Department; they did an excellent job of maintaining contact and administering the program. As the number of fellows from IFT grows in future years, I am confident that awareness of food science within the halls of Congress will prosper.
by MICKEY PARISH
1998–99 IFT Congressional Science Fellow