This article was originally published on the Columbia Journalism Review’s blog The Observatory.
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 when 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.
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 U.S. 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.© Food Safety News