In Food Marketing Institute vs. Argus Leader, a case involving a newspaper's desire to publish commercially sensitive information on how many food stamp purchases various retailers processed, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the previous standard -- in place since 1974 -- that the confidential information businesses submitted to the government was subject to release under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) unless its disclosure was likely to lead to "substantial competitive harm."
Rather, in a 6-3 decision, the court adopted the commonsense principle that, for purposes of FOIA's confidential business information exemption, a business needs to merely keep the information confidential in the general course of its business to prevent its disclosure under FOIA.
The case involved whether FOIA’s Exemption 4 protects store-level Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) redemption data from mandatory disclosure. Retailers carefully safeguard such sensitive information, which has significant value to competitors. The Food Marketing Institute (FMI), therefore, intervened in the lawsuit on appeal to argue that store-level SNAP redemption data constitutes confidential commercial information, and is therefore exempt from disclosure under FOIA.
“FMI is grateful that the court clarified FOIA’s Exemption 4 to prevent the disclosure of confidential commercial information that would put businesses at competitive disadvantages,” FMI said in a statement.
Argus Leader, a South Dakota newspaper owned by Gannett, has argued that taxpayers have a right to know where government dollars are spent.
“FMI and its members don’t disagree with that general proposition, but food retailers of all sizes and geographic locations have expressed apprehension about the release of this individualized, highly granular information, which says less about how and where government money is spent than on the specific competitive position of particular stores and companies. Smaller companies have expressed concern over larger U.S. competitors receiving the data, and larger U.S. players have expressed concern about international online operators without existing U.S. stores gaining access to this confidential sales data,” FMI noted.
In a statement, the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) said this is a significant victory and builds on NPPC's prior success in 2016 to protect the privacy of personal information from disclosure under FOIA statutes. “Together, these two rulings will significantly hinder the efforts of anti-agriculture activists like The Human Society of the United States and the Waterkeepers Alliance from using FOIA requests to spy on pork producers,” NPPC said in its weekly newsletter on June 28.