Wednesday was a difficult day for The American Independent News Network, which is the larger entity that operates The Iowa Independent. Our chief executive and founder announced two of our sister sites would close and their content would be moved to The American Independent.
Beef processor wants Iowa State to keep ammonia research documents hush-hush
A public records request to Iowa State University has met with stiff resistance from Beef Products Inc. (BPI), a company with strong Iowa ties that pioneered ammonia-based beef processing recently featured in a national expose on pathogens in school lunches. At the heart of the disagreement is Iowa’s oft-criticized 1967 public records law.
Just before a recent New York Times report on the use of ammonia in beef processing published, a Seattle-based food safety law firm formally requested Iowa State provide all public records related to research completed by a professor on the safety of the process. Although university officials gathered 1,650 documents and received more than $2,000 from the firm to pay for the copies, the records were never sent to the Marler Clark law firm. Beef Products Inc. filed an injunction in Iowa District Court for Story County, asserting that release of the documents could disclose trade secrets.
According to Michael Moss, author of The Times’ report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service relied on research generated by the Iowa State professor, showing that the process was an effective killer of pathogens such as E. coli.
“Frankly, I thought the public should know what BPI, the USDA/FSIS and the beef industry were relying on to serve us the ammonia ‘fatty trimmings the industry once relegated to pet food and cooking oil,’” wrote attorney Bill Marler on the company’s blog while referring to the Times’ report. “I would have assumed BPI, the USDA/FSIS and the beef industry would feel the same way? Well, BPI did not.”
BPI, which is being represented by the Shuttleworth & Ingersoll law firm in Cedar Rapids, is arguing that the services of James S. Dickson, an Iowa State professor, were purchased directly from Dickson as a private contractor and not as a representative of the university, and that Dickson remains under a non-disclosure agreement. The company further argues that since Dickson worked as an independent contractor of the company, all of the documents related to his research are the property of BPI and not of Iowa State.
The disclosure of said information would disclose and divulge confidential trade secrets of BPI and would cause irreparable injury to BPI for which BPI has not adequate remedy at law. Such disclosure is prohibited by Chapter 22, Code of Iowa.
Even if the court determines that the information is not the property of BPI, the injunction states, it must still prohibit disclosure of such confidential records to third parties by virtue of the same statute, which is the state’s public records law. The fourth subsection of the statute, named “exceptions,” refers to Chapter 550, which deals specifically with trade secrets, and quotes a 1980 opinion by the Iowa Attorney General that “if an agency has reasonable grounds for concluding that an item is a trade secret, it need not make the item available for inspection and copying.” The Code states overall that any public records deemed confidential “shall be kept confidential unless otherwise ordered by a court, the lawful custodian, or another person duly authorized to release information.”
In a letter to Iowa State University, Marler questions whether or not Dickson’s research and subsequent documentation is confidential under Iowa law.
“Just because BPI filed a petition claiming that some records we seek contain trade secrets, or relate to work that Dr. Dickson did as an ‘independent contractor,’ that does not mean there is a reasonable basis for refusing to disclose the already-gathered documents,” he wrote. “We are also troubled by the fact of Dr. Dickson having published an article in the Journal of Food Protection that extensively discusses allegedly ‘confidential’ research on behalf of BPI, that the research was also supported by Hatch Act and State of Iowa funds, and that his consulting work for BPI would have needed approval by the University to avoid conflicts of interest.”
Marler also notes that he does not believe it is his firm’s place to intervene in the action against ISU since his firm does not know the content of the information in question.
“Indeed, if the university allows a default judgment to be entered, and an injunction to issue, when it knows that BPI is not otherwise entitled to such relief, the the University’s failure to act could be construed as causing the denial of rights under the public records law,” he said.
The firm has amended its prior public records request to include “all records related to Dickson’s consulting work for BPI; how such work was approved and monitored; disclosure of any conflicts of interest; whether federal, USDA, or Iowa state funds were used to support the work; other grants sponsored or funded by BPI at the University; research notes, data, article-drafts, related papers, and other documents that relate to Dr. Dickson’s Research Note published in the 2003 Journal of Food Protection, vol. 66, pages 847-877.”
BPI links to a report from Iowa State University on its Web site; however, that report, labeled as a “brief statement of the use of ammonium compounds in food processing,” was written by Sam Beattie and not Dickson.