WASHINGTON – The Food Marketing Institute (FMI) has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to offer clarity on the standard under which the government releases data – in this case data regarding the amount consumers spend with Supplemental Nutrition Assistances Program (SNAP) benefits at food stores – to the public. The Supreme Court Monday heard arguments in the case: Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media. The Argus Leader, a newspaper in Sioux Falls, S.D., has argued that the public has a right to know how and where taxpayer dollars are being spent in the $65 billion antihunger program. Retailers have argued that store-level SNAP sales data (as opposed to aggregate program-wide data) essentially amounts to a trade secret and releasing it would harm retailers.
In an op-ed in USA Today released on the morning of oral arguments, Leslie Sarasin, president and chief executive officer of FMI, explained that, “to business owners large and small, this store-level sales data is undoubtedly confidential because its release would provide an unfair advantage to competitors.” The case centers on “whether the plain meaning of ‘confidential’ should be applied or whether businesses must prove substantial competitive harm in every instance. … Revealing store-level SNAP sales data will not illuminate the government’s activities; it simply opens grocers to unfair competitive harm. The food retail industry has also worked diligently to mitigate any stigma associated with being a SNAP recipient and to protect these customers’ privacy,” she wrote.
Sarasin pointed out that “the public already has access to a wealth of SNAP information, such as the total amount of SNAP dollars redeemed by month, by state, by county and even by store type…The Supreme Court’s decision will provide valuable guidance regarding the government’s responsibility to protect private commercial data in the future.”
In 2011, the Argus Leader filed a lawsuit after the U.S. Department of Agriculture denied its Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, which had sought retail sales data for five years of store-level SNAP purchases. Initially, the department fought the request in court but in 2017 decided not to appeal a judge's ruling that the government had failed to show that releasing the data would cause real competitive harm to retailers. At that point, the Food Marketing Institute, which represents grocers, stepped in and eventually succeeded in getting the Supreme Court to take the case.
This case, which is the first since the 1970s that the Supreme Court has taken on that will address the contours of the FOIA exemption dealing with “trade secrets and commercial or financial information,” may limit access to federal government records that contain information about private sector businesses.
NACS, which has been following the case closely, filed an amicus brief in support of FMI’s position, along with the National Grocers Association and The National Retail Federation. The Supreme Court is expected to announce its decision before the court recesses at the end of June.