SEJ Joins Call for End to "Minders," Interview-Control at FDA

November 18, 2009

The Society of Environmental Journalists has joined journalism groups calling for an end to restrictions on FDA staff interviews with press. The call comes as USA TODAY exposes a culture of secrecy at FDA that caused schoolkids in several states to get sick because the FDA hid information about tainted tortillas.

The Obama administration came into office promising greater openness at federal agencies. In response, FDA has formed a Transparency Task Force to review its information policies. That task force held meetings to get input from the public on June 24 and November 3, 2009. But it hasn't adopted recommendations yet and seems to be focusing on issues other than press access. It remains to be seen whether FDA will show a stronger commitment to protecting the public than to protecting the industries it regulates.

The FDA is one of several federal agencies noted for restricting press interviews with agency scientists and staff. An unwritten policy has for a decade and a half required agency personnel to get press office permission to speak to news media, and required Saddam-style "minders" from the press office to sit in on interviews. The press offices of most agencies are usually controlled by political appointees.

Led by the Association of Health Care Journalists and the Society of Professional Journalists, a number of journalism groups have called on FDA's Transparency Task Force to help end the interview restrictions as "practices that restrict the flow of information to the public."

A November 17, 2009, article by USA TODAY reporters Blake Morrison and Peter Eisler recounted an incident where FDA regulators knew about a pattern of repeated sanitation violations by Chicago's Del Rey Tortilleria, yet failed to warn schools using the tainted product for children's lunches. One result was that scores of schoolkids in at least three states continued to get violently sick for at least four years.

One of the reasons FDA is negligent in notifying schools of tainted lunch foods, according to USA TODAY, is that the agency has given priority to protecting the claimed "proprietary information" of companies.

FDA has come under fire in recent years for other secrecy practices — including not revealing the harmful or fatal side-effects of the drugs it approves.

In the absence of reliably effective programs by FDA to protect schoolchildren and people needing medication, as the USA TODAY article shows, access by watchdog journalists to FDA records and staff may be the public's last hope of protection. And such access, journalism groups are saying, is just what FDA's press policies prevent.

Ironically, the Del Rey incident was similar in many ways to a "hypothetical case study" presented for public discussion at the Transparency Task Force's November 3, 2009, public meeting. There was no consensus among the "stakeholders" FDA heard as to whether or how FDA should inform the public of foodborne illness outbreaks.