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2015 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Large Newsroom finalist

Game of Chicken

 

About the Project

Over the course of a decade, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had not one, not two, not three, but four opportunities to warn the public about salmonella outbreaks involving Foster Farms chicken.

Each time, they hemmed and hawed, worrying more about the threat of legal action from a corporate giant than about consumer safety.
Oregonian/OregonLive health reporter Lynne Terry was the first journalist in America to identify and write about this alarming trend. With reporters from Frontline and the New York Times circling around the story, she beat them all with a stunning and illuminating examination of the failures of the USDA.
In her yearlong investigation, Terry set out to determine if the USDA’s notoriously slow handling of a major salmonella outbreak in 2013-2014 was an isolated case.

It wasn’t.

She reviewed thousands of pages of previously undisclosed documents dating back to 2003. What she found was stunning: More than 1,000 people had fled to their doctors with bouts of food poisoning. They had no idea what made them sick. But federal regulators did.

And those same federal officials did virtually nothing to protect consumers. Health officials in Oregon and Washington had pushed vigorously for federal action. These same state health regulators had pieced together clear and convincing evidence of problems. But the USDA wouldn’t budge.

Terry’s meticulous reporting identified these themes:
  • USDA officials are afraid of lawsuits. The agency is so worried about being sued by companies that they’ve set an almost impossible bar for evidence, even rejecting samples of tainted chicken that state health agencies believed had clinched the case.
  • Government inspectors are pressured to go easy on food processors. In one notable case, the USDA transferred an inspector after Foster Farms complained he wrote too many citations.
  • The USDA succumbed to further pressure from Foster Farms. After strong pushback from the company’s lawyers, the agency backed away from citing an unequivocal connection linking the company to a 2004 outbreak – even though the evidence pointed only to Foster Farms.

Terry overcame extreme obstacles in reporting this story. Foster Farms refused to talk about any of the outbreaks. At the same time, the USDA rejected a wide-ranging Freedom of Information Act request from The Oregonian/Oregonlive. We appealed the denial and won. Months passed before the USDA finally released any records. Many of the documents were heavily redacted – often with entire pages blacked out.

We filed more FOIA requests. And then more. The agency dribbled out partial releases, sending something every four or five months in response to our requests for updates. The latest release arrived this May 2015, more than two years after the initial records request and two weeks after our investigation was published. The agency released 552 documents, but excluded 5,228 others without explanation.

Despite these hurdles, Terry was able to piece together a story of bureaucratic failure that had devastating human consequences. She found victims of salmonella poisoning who were willing to share their stories. She translated complicated epidemiological information into language readers could understand. She tracked down key documents. And she built the trust of USDA inspectors, who feared losing their jobs if they spoke out.

Her work was cited by members of Congress, who introduced a bill that would force the USDA to recall food responsible for outbreaks and contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In Oregon, Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, referred to the investigation while she was arguing for a Senate bill that would limit antibiotic use in farm animals.

Our coverage went the extra mile to make sure that visual learners could also easily find and understand the takeaways: Terry put together an excellent “graphic novel” type photo gallery that explained the key findings in images and captions. And video artist Theresa Mahoney created an accessible and even fun video with construction paper cutouts that clearly and simply explained the complex issues at hand.

As always Terry spent hours moderating comments and answering questions in the comments after her stories appeared, explaining the issues to readers with follow-up questions.