Iowa State University research on "pink slime" barred from public to protect trade secrets, judge ruled

Lilly Chapa | Freedom of Information | News | April 16, 2013

Iowa State University cannot release research data about how a meat packaging company processes the controversial “pink slime” beef product because the processes are trade secrets, a district judge ruled.

The research a professor conducted for Beef Products, Inc. (BPI) at a university laboratory falls under the trade secrets exemption of the state Freedom of Information Act, Story County District Judge Dale Ruigh stated in an opinion released last month.

A Seattle attorney sued for the records in 2010 and The New York Times eventually filed a records request for the same information.

“The documents…contain information which, if examined by knowledgeable people employed by BPI’s competitors, could result in disclosure of confidential information about BPI’s existing food-processing methods and its development of new methods,” the opinion stated.

The judge also expressed concern that fewer private entities would use the university laboratories and faculty for private consulting if they knew the results could be made public, which would ultimately lose the university revenue.

The fight for details about the production of BPI’s lean finely textured beef came years before it was infamously dubbed “pink slime” and brought into the spotlight by ABC News. A series of broadcasts revealed the controversial product’s widespread use in restaurants and school cafeterias. BPI later sued ABC for defamation, claiming that the term “pink slime” caused its revenue to plummet.

In late 2009, Seattle attorney Bill Marler filed the records request for the 2002 study on BPI’s meat production process. Marler sought the information as part of a lawsuit involving tainted hamburger patties.

The university agreed to hand over the information, but the meat company filed a lawsuit against the university and asked the court to prevent the disclosure of the data. The company argued that the release of the research would reveal confidential practices within the company.

Like many states, Iowa’s FOIA contains an exemption that prevents information that could reveal private business tactics – such as secret recipes – from being released under the act.

Marler said a district court heard arguments in 2010 and ruled that the school should not release the data. Marler did not appeal the decision and already settled the lawsuit involving the tainted hamburger patties. He was surprised when he learned of the court’s written decision released last month, he said in an interview.

“I have no idea why the court issued a written order three years later on a case where he told us we couldn’t have the documents three years ago,” Marler said.

However, the inaccessible documents may still become public through discovery in the ABC News defamation case, Marler said.

“The ironic thing is that even though BPI was successful at keeping these documents out of the public domain, the fact that they now filed a lawsuit has blown their argument to keep that confidential,” Marler said. “Now they’re saying, ‘our product is great, you’ve disparaged us,’ and now we get to get into all the documents to find out what’s going on. It should be somewhat entertaining.”