Tuesday, March 14, 2017

FDA says it's exempt from FOIA when it comes to naming groceries that carry contaminated food

If you want to know if your local grocery store carries items reported to be contaminated, you're out of luck. The Food and Drug Administration does not specify where contaminated items are located, "because that would violate its interpretation of an obscure trade secret rule," Caitlin Dewey reports for The Washington Post.

"This interpretation differs from that of other agencies in the federal food safety system, an overlapping and often illogical network of regulatory fiefdoms," Dewey writes. "The system, which is responsible for keeping food free of bacteria and other pathogens, frequently has to weigh the very real interests of private food companies against potential risks to the public. In the case of releasing retailer lists during major outbreaks, FDA has historically sided with business, ruling that such lists constitute 'confidential commercial information' and thus should not be available for public consumption."

FDA said in a statement "that it believes its disclosure measures are sufficient and blamed the lack of downstream recall information on federal disclosure rules," Dewey writes. "Federal regulations do limit the sort of information that can be released to the public. Under the Freedom of Information Act and Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations, government agencies—and specifically, the FDA—are told to exempt trade secrets and commercial information from any of their releases. Peter Cassell, a spokesman for FDA, said confidential consumer information "is exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests, but can be shared through certain information sharing agreements (including with other federal agencies).”

Critics say refusing to release the information poses health dangers, "particularly in cases like the current E. coli outbreak, where parents may not know if their child consumed the recalled product," Dewey writes. Also, in cases where there is a hepatitis A outbreak, which can be treated with a vaccine for a limited period after exposure, it's important for consumers who may have gotten ill to know as soon as possible.

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