Government Transparency – An Oxymoron: Updated

Oxymoron – a rhetorical device or figure of speech in which contradictory or opposite words or concepts are combined for effect

Ologies & -Isms. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc.

On June 27, 2012, FDA posted the following notice on its Enforcement Report web page:

FDA is pleased to present a new format for its weekly Enforcement Report. When you select the link below for this week’s report, you will hopefully find a simpler, clearer report that offers downloadable data for analyses while also providing savings and encouraging future innovation for Government. This data-driven report provides FDA a baseline as it moves forward in its efforts to integrate the Agency’s compliance and enforcement data.

The new reporting format is, indeed, easier to use – so much easier, in fact, that it highlights the purely cosmetic nature of FDA’s interest in transparency.

One of my pet peeves with FDA is its refusal to release retail distribution information for food safety recalls. The agency claims that this information is proprietary to the companies who “voluntarily” recall their products. In contrast, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) maintains a policy of releasing retail distribution lists within seven days of a recall announcement. Same government. Different department. Different policy.

Another of my gripes is FDA’s equally adamant refusal to provide a list of countries to which a recalled product was exported, unless the company itself releases that information. Particularly frustrating was the recent series of Diamond Pet Foods Salmonella recalls.

Diamond Pet Foods – and several other companies for whom Diamond manufactured dry dog food – recalled a long list of products after three separate batches of the pet food were linked to a Salmonella Infantis outbreak that sickened 49 people (47 in the USA and 2 in Canada). One of the companies caught up in the recalls was Natural Balance Pet Foods.

On May 4th, Natural Balance recalled 833 tons of dry dog foods in response to the Diamond Pet Foods recall notice. At the time of the recall, consumers were told that the products “may have been” distributed in Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, DC, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Vermont, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Wyoming and Canada.

Consumers were NOT told that the recalled Natural Balance products also were shipped to Taiwan and Israel. That information, which was in FDA’s hands at the time of the May 4th recall, was released today (July 25th) in FDA’s Weekly Enforcement Report.

What is the logic in refusing to release an international (country-level) distribution list at the time of a recall, when the information will eventually be made public anyway?

On June 27th, when FDA introduced its new Weekly Enforcement Report format, I sent the following request to the agency’s Office of Public Affairs:

I’ve been thinking of using the new format of the FDA Weekly Enforcement Report as the jump-off for a blog story about the recall process. I would greatly appreciate answers to a couple of questions. Specifically,

1. What are the criteria that determine when information on a specific recall is included in a Weekly Enforcement Report?

2. Why does FDA not release retail distribution lists for Class I recalls (as FSIS does)? When does consumer protection trump “proprietary” interests?

3. Why does FDA not release information (when it is available) on the foreign countries to which a recalled product was exported? While I realize that FDA’s primary responsibility is to US citizens, the FDA web site is often the SOLE source of this type of information for people (including expatriate US citizens) living in many foreign countries.

I plan to comment on each of these issues in my article, and would appreciate a clear statement of FDA’s current policies and the reasons for these policies.

I received an acknowledgment of my request the next day, asking for my deadline. I indicated that I would appreciate a reply by the end of June. On July 12th, I sent a reminder. As of today, I’m still waiting for answers.

FDA is not the only culprit – or even the worst culprit – when it comes to timely public disclosure of recall and outbreak information. Canada’s federal and provincial health and agriculture agencies are just as bad. Information requests sent to Health Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and some of the provincial departments often are ignored completely – acknowledged at times, but rarely answered substantively. Some US states are equally at fault. Idaho, for example, requested that the name of an Idaho mail-order hatchery be withheld from a CDC Outbreak Investigation Report. And the EU publishes a daily list of food and animal feed safety notifications (Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed) without providing any identifying information – neither brand names nor lot numbers – even when the food is implicated in a disease outbreak.

Government agencies are inherently secretive. They can’t help it; it’s in their DNA. President Obama’s earlier promises notwithstanding, we shall never see true transparency from US government departments. Not today. Not next year.

Sadly, the best we can hope for is a reduction in government opacity.

FDA’s response

After sending a link to this article to FDA’s Office of Public Affairs, I received the following replies to my questions:

1. What are the criteria that determine when information on a specific recall is included in a Weekly Enforcement Report?

When the recall is classified it is available for the weekly (by CFR part 7 section 21 CFR) published Enforcement Report.

2. Why does FDA not release retail distribution lists for Class I recalls (as FSIS does)?

Freedom of Information regulations do not permit us to release this commercial confidential information (CCI) information. The following link should be helpful and will provide greater clarity. In addition, I would need to refer you to USDA of which FSIS is a subpart. 

  When does consumer protection trump “proprietary” interests?

Congressional mandate when the Freedom of Information Act was passed.

3. Why does FDA not release information (when it is available) on the foreign countries to which a recalled product was exported? While I realize that FDA’s primary responsibility is to US citizens, the FDA web site is often the SOLE source of this type of information for people (including ex-patriate US citizens) living in many foreign countries.

See response #2


4 thoughts on “Government Transparency – An Oxymoron: Updated

  1. Albert: You might get a pleasant surprise if you google “No more bullshit, please, we’re all Malaysians”. I think every country should have a book with that title. The slogan also applies to the earth/globe because we are all on it together; but evryone seems to believe they won’t get caught or be affected …….


  2. Hi Phyllis:

    I believe the book I reviewed below came out as a US edition in 2011 – it goes a long way in providing the answer why organizations behave the way they do!

    The Bullshit Factor – The Truth About Corporate Disguises, Lies & Denial by James Bellini and Kati St. Clair, 2006, Artesian Publishing LLP ( .
    Almost without fail, every morning when I open my local news paper, I find example articles that demonstrate amply the operation of ‘The Bullshit Factor’ in organizations ranging from industry, government, nongovernmental organizations or even educational institutions. It is therefore difficult to understand why it is so difficult to do justice to this book in a review – perhaps it is yet another example of how uncomfortable most of us feel when confronted by truth.
    Back in 1974 I read Graham Cleverley’s book entitled Managers and Magic. The only thing wrong with that book is that it should have been titled ‘Managers and Bullshit’ as it describes management as a bunch of tribal rituals. Similarly the only thing wrong with ‘The Bullshit Factor – The Truth About Corporate Disguises, Lies and Denial’ is that ‘Corporate’ should be replaced with ‘Organizational’ . What sets these two books apart from other books on management is that they refuse to obey the concept of mokita which apparently is a New Guinean word meaning “the truth everyone knows but no one speaks” (see Culbert, Samuel A. 2008, Beyond Bullsh*t – Straight-Talk at Work, Stanford U. Press, Stanford, Ca. page 126).
    While most books of this genre describe management and leadership as positive qualities, in ‘The Bullshit Factor’ Bellini and St. Clair focus on the dark side (see Conger, Jay A. The dark Side of Leadership). “Sometimes the dark side of leadership eclipses the bright side – to the detriment of both the leader and the organization.”
    Above all, this book is a wake-up call to most readers that we get old so soon and smart too late – while most courses and publications on leadership use the word without a qualifier as if leadership is a synonym for ‘godliness’, Bellini and St. Clair use many actual case studies to focus on the dark side of leadership and leadership greed. The authors stress that ‘The Bullshit Factor’ is not a theory of management but a means of understanding the risks associated with a dysfunctional corporate psyche.” Perhaps the book can best be summarized by the observation that when an organization becomes preoccupied and believes its own bullshit that organization becomes unfit for survival.
    So if you have ever, and who has not, worked for an organization that is dysfunctional and resembles a rat-runner colony, you owe it to yourself to read or better yet buy a copy of this truly fascinating book which goes a long way of describing the psychopathic behavior of so many organizations and explains why so many organizations fly high for relatively short periods of time and then crash as they start to believe their own organizational bullshit!


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