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Word Nerd

Integrity can get you into trouble

What would you do if you saw outrageous and possibly dangerous behavior at your job, and yet your boss told you to ignore it?

A friend of mine recently experienced this quandary. Wendy Alguard worked for the USDA as an inspector. She was assigned to the Snokist plant in Yakima to monitor the food being produced for the school lunch program.

To her surprise and disgust, she said she witnessed Snokist workers taking moldy applesauce, scraping off the mold and reprocessing the strained fruit as food using techniques that did not kill off the dangerous fungi.

Her authority only extended to food that would end up in schools, so she informed her boss of the practice. When she pressed the issue, she said he told her to mind her own business.

When an unrelated issue with dented cans caused illness in school children, the FDA came to investigate the plant. Alguard took the opportunity to inform the FDA of the practice of reprocessing moldy food.

The FDA took action, and the warning letter to Snokist posted on the FDA's website (visit www.fda.gov and search for "Snokist") in October of last year is enough to turn a stomach. The actual inspection report, also on the website, is even more stomach-churning.

Shortly after Alguard tipped off the FDA she was reassigned by the USDA to a less desirable posting far from her home. When she refused the posting, she lost her job. She later learned that the two inspectors before her had also complained about the practice, and had both been punished for their complaints.

Alguard stood up for what was right and paid for it. As a result, thousands of people will no longer be getting dangerous toxins in their food. She lost her job, but thanks to her no one lost their life to a food-borne illness caused by irresponsible practices at that plant.

So, what would you do?

I hope that if I'm ever put in that situation I have the strength and moral compass to follow Alguard's example.

Lost jobs are bad, it's true. But lost lives are worse.

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