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.

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.


More in The Observatory

Must-reads of 2012: science

Read More »

Helena Bottemiller is the Washington, DC, correspondent for Food Safety News. Food Safety News is published by the law firm Marler Clark, which represents victims of food-borne illnesses but is operated separately and is editorially independent.