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.
In September, the FDA said it had received more than 2,200 complaints about ill pets linked to the treats, including 360 reports of dog deaths and one report of a cat death.
Aleccia was recently told she would need to file a new FOIA request to get the missing inspection report. She obliged and has since followed up several times, with no luck. (Health officials have still not figured out what is making so many pets sick.)
When asked about the delay, FDA press officer Shelly Burgess said the request had been referred to the agency’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, which recently lost its FOIA officer to retirement. “They now have an acting FOIA Officer, who is working to get the backlog of requests processed as soon as possible,” she said.
I had a similarly frustrating experience with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service when I was working on a story on foreign meat safety audits.
While a massive E. coli O157:H7 recall was unfolding in Canada in September 2012 (the largest in Canadian history), local press reported that US inspectors hadn’t audited their country’s meat-inspection system since 2009. This caught my attention because audits, meant to hold trading partners accountable for their food-safety oversight, used to happen annually—and 2.5 million pounds of the recalled meat had been shipped to the US.
A quick visit to the USDA’s FSIS website revealed that regulators had stopped posting these audit reports online, so it was impossible to figure out which countries had been audited since 2008. After multiple inquiries, an FSIS official told me the number of audits the agency had conducted from 2010 through 2012, but said they couldn’t list which countries had been audited. The data indicated there had been a reduction in these checks of more than 60 percent under the Obama administration.
When I asked for an explanation, the agency eventually granted me a hastily thrown together interview with a senior policy official, with a minder and on background (which is the agency’s protocol). A few days after the interview, which was tense but informative (the agency had made major policy changes without making them public), FSIS posted a handful of draft audit reports on its website, and added notes about which reports are still pending.
As I explain in my CJR piece, food safety is an inherently complex and difficult story to cover. These kinds of unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles from the public agencies whose job it is to protect the nation’s food supply make it that much harder.