The following opinion piece appeared in USA Today on April 22, 2019.
Revealing store-level SNAP sales data will not illuminate the government’s activities: Opposing view
By: Leslie G. Sarasin, President and CEO, Food Marketing Institute
The nation’s grocery stores have long kept confidential the amount consumers spend at individual stores with cash, credit and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
To business owners large and small, this store-level sales data is undoubtedly confidential because its release would provide an unfair advantage to competitors.
We have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to clarify the appropriate standard for exempting this data from public release — including whether the plain meaning of “confidential” should be applied or whether businesses must prove substantial competitive harm in every instance.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was created to shine a light on the government, not on private parties. Congress expressly exempted confidential commercial information from mandatory disclosure because that disclosure can harm private interests without adding much insight about the government’s own work.
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.
The Food Marketing Institute certainly supports transparency, including as it relates to SNAP. But 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.
Importantly, this case is bigger than SNAP sales in grocery stores. The Supreme Court’s decision will provide valuable guidance regarding the government’s responsibility to protect private commercial data in the future.
Congress understood and addressed that concern when it drafted FOIA to provide protection for private parties’ confidential information. We are simply asking the Supreme Court to apply the plain meaning of FOIA’s text.