Washington, D.C. — Pointing out the critical role that public information plays in food safety, today Food & Water Watch slammed USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) for failing to operate within a culture of transparency. In a letter sent to Brian Ronholm, Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety, and FSIS Acting Administrator Alfred V. Almanza, the national advocacy organization described what it sees as attempts by FSIS to thwart transparency in the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process.
The letter highlights an internal posting at FSIS spotted by Food & Water Watch personnel about an upcoming FSIS Office of Public Affairs and Consumer Education seminar for employees about the FOIA process. The event posting posed such questions as: “Is what we write in our work emails private?” “Can a member of the public request them?” “Would FSIS-USDA have to provide them?” An accompanying graphic showed an image of a FOIA request being shredded.
“FSIS owes it to the American people to prove that the food they eat and feed their families is safe, and part of that mandate includes responding to requests for information in a timely and transparent manner,” said Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. “From the announcement of this seminar, to stalling in responding to FOIA requests and redacting key information, FSIS is making a mockery of a crucial element of the freedom of information process.”
The letter also recalls a pattern of stonewalling on the part of the agency to release crucial food safety information to public interest organizations and the media. For example, on October 17, 2013, Food & Water Watch filed a FOIA request for all agency records, including emails, associated with food-borne illness outbreaks caused by contaminated poultry products processed by Foster Farms between June 1, 2012 and October 17, 2013. During that time period, poultry products processed by Foster Farms facilities were implicated in two separate food-borne illness outbreaks investigated by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that sickened 768 consumers, hospitalizing a significant number of them. Food & Water Watch has yet to receive a complete response from the agency.
With the President’s 2016 budget for FSIS cutting $4.9 million from the budget for meat and poultry inspection, and new trade agreements such as the Trans Pacific Trade Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership expected to further weaken food safety, advocates worry that these problems will only get worse.
“The Obama administration once boasted that it would be the most transparent in history, yet FSIS’ sluggish and shoddy response record to information requests highlights how far from reality those claims are. FSIS is doing Americans a huge disservice by thwarting attempts to shed light on our nation’s food safety system,” concluded Hauter.
Contact: Kate Fried, Food & Water Watch, (202) 683-4905, kfried(at)fwwatch(dot)org.