Editors’ Note: Bottemiller’s bio should have mentioned that her employer, Food Safety News, is published by the law firm Marler Clark, which represents victims of food-borne illnesses. FSN operates separately and is editorially independent.
In the January/February edition of the Columbia Journalism Review, I report on the challenges facing journalists covering food safety, from the slow trickle of information during foodborne-illness outbreaks to the complicated food-regulatory system. While some of these issues are unique to the beat, when it comes to dealing with federal agencies, food-safety reporters face the same transparency challenges as everyone else.
Every journalist I interviewed for the piece complained about the sometimes-astonishing lack of openness at the public-health agencies we deal with regularly. Their concerns largely mirrored those outlined in 2011 by CJR’s Curtis Brainard in “Transparency Watch: A Closed Door”: Reporters have trouble getting access to scientists and decision-makers and when they do get access, public-affairs staff listen in; press officers are not always responsive and often don’t answer questions in a timely fashion; and delays (and denials) in filling Freedom of Information Act requests make getting important public information in a timely manner a struggle.
Though transparency and access complaints remain common, Brainard reported that a survey of health and environment journalists rated the Obama administration’s performance on these issues better—if only somewhat—than the Bush administration’s record. The consensus among food-safety reporters, however, seems to be that this administration is actually worse than its predecessor.
“They are much more on message than the Bush administration was, which seems to be a bit of a shock,” says Elizabeth Weise, who has covered food safety at USA Today for nearly a decade. “Really, the only way you can get what you need is to FOIA.”
Reporters cite transparency problems with all three of the major federal agencies involved with food safety: the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The FDA is very problematic,” says Lynne Terry of The Oregonian. “You have to call them repeatedly to get a response. I’ve had zero luck with [USDA]. When I call, they send me an email response. CDC doesn’t always give restaurant or company names, which can be frustrating.”
The CDC’s policy of not naming companies tied to foodborne-illness outbreaks, if the link is established after the threat to public health has passed, has made it tough to report on the incidents.
In January 2012, for instance, the agency announced that there had been a 10-state Salmonella outbreak a few months earlier that was likely linked to “Restaurant Chain A.” When media pressed the CDC to name the restaurant, the agency explained that not doing so helped officials keep a cordial, cooperative relationship with the company during the investigation. Plus, CDC officials argued, the outbreak was over, so consumers were no longer at risk.
But reporters and food-safety advocates didn’t see it that way; they argued that consumers had a right to know about such outbreaks, even if the threat had passed.
The name of the restaurant (Taco Bell) was eventually revealed to Dan Flynn, my editor at Food Safety News, by officials at the Oklahoma State Department of Health’s Acute Disease Service, and subsequently reported by several other media outlets.
It also can be challenging to get access to the scientists and policymakers who have the most knowledge about newsworthy events, like major recalls, multistate outbreaks, or policy changes. “During the Bush administration, you could walk the halls and pop into an assistant under secretary’s office and say, ‘Hey, do you have a minute to explain this?’” says one reporter who covers the USDA. “Now, they’d call security.”
With limited access to experts, reporters increasingly rely on FOIA requests to answer their questions, but though there have been improvements to the process, filing and following up on such requests can still be time consuming and frustrating.
In early 2012, for instance, JoNel Aleccia, who covers the health beat at NBCnews.com, started to look into the source of Chinese-made pet treats after learning that hundreds of pet owners were concerned that imported chicken jerky products were sickening and killing their dogs. When the FDA wouldn’t release the inspection reports of the processing plants in China that made the treats, she filed a FOIA request.
In July, nearly five months later, Aleccia reported that FDA officials denied her request, saying that making the records public would “violate rules protecting trade secrets and confidential commercial information, and that it could also interfere with enforcement proceedings.”
The day after Aleccia’s article appeared, the FDA quietly posted five years of jerky-treat testing data. By the end of August, it had posted (also quietly) four out of the five inspection records that Aleccia had requested.