July 28, 2019

More Protection for Animal Research Information

Supreme Court ruling offers more protection for animal research information

The Supreme Court’s recent ruling in the case Food Marketing Institute (FMI) v. Argus Leader gives companies involved in animal research better legal tools against Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) abuse by animal rights extremists. On June 24, the court ruled 6-3 that companies do not need to prove “substantial competitive harm,” or any harm, to use Exemption 4 to protect their confidential business information from FOIA requests.

“At least where commercial or financial information is both customarily and actually treated as private by its owner and provided to the government under an assurance of privacy, the information is ‘confidential’ within the meaning of Exemption 4,” wrote Justice Gorsuch in his majority opinion.

The National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR) has called the decision a “resounding victory for NABR member companies involved in animal research.” NABR is one of several groups that filed amicus briefs on behalf of the wider research community.

The court case hinged on how to interpret FOIA’s Exemption 4. FMI argued that data on store-level Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (SNAP) redemption information is sensitive information and should not be released through FOIA requests. Argus Leader, a South Dakota newspaper, argued that taxpayers have a right to see this data to know where government funds are spent.

FMI countered that they didn’t disagree with the “general proposition” but that the actual data is “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.”

During the case, another example brought up to the court was the use of FOIA requests by animal rights extremists. Certain groups have sought data on animal imports from private companies conducting animal research. This data is then used to harass companies to interrupt supply chains and delay research programs, especially federally required research on animals.

The new court decision will allow companies to use Exemption 4 to protect both SNAP data and other private information, including information on animal research.

Read more: SCOTUSblog, “Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media”