FERN’s Tenth: A reporter reflects on our first investigation

Ten years ago, FERN was just getting started. We had a skeleton staff but knew what we wanted to do — engage in investigative reporting on the food system. Via a news tip, we decided to look into a controversial livestock drug and hired Helena Bottemiller Evich to work with us on the freelance investigation. The work took months, as she explains below, but when the story was published it made a lot of waves, especially within the Food and Drug Administration. Helena, then a reporter at Food Safety News, went on to become a major food policy reporter for Politico, where she broke numerous stories. She is now about to launch a newsletter. We asked her to reflect on that first investigative story we published in collaboration with NBC News in 2012.
— Sam Fromartz, editor-in-chief

By Helena Bottemiller Evich

When FERN asked me to reflect on its 10th anniversary, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. I am proud to have written FERN’s very first investigative story, “Dispute Over Drug in Feed Limiting U.S. Meat Exports,” which was published in partnership with NBC News on January, 25, 2012.

The story was a deep dive on ractopamine, a growth-promoting livestock drug that’s been commonly used in the U.S. but banned in more than 160 countries, which put it at the heart of high-stakes fights over meat exports to important markets like China and Taiwan. At the time, it was estimated that ractopamine was fed to the vast majority of pigs in the U.S. 

During the investigation, I found that this drug – which essentially mimics stress hormones and also produces leaner meat – had triggered more reports of adverse effects in pigs than any other animal drug on the market.

The story required FOIAs, dozens of interviews, and hours of reviewing FDA logs of adverse animal drug reports (the system for livestock producers and others to report problems to the agency). It also required a lot of guidance from FERN editors. How do you unpack such a technical, wonky story about an obscure animal drug and make it understandable and relevant to readers? 

It was a big project. I remember sitting at my kitchen table with a stack of more than 400 pages of FDA records detailing problems that producers were reportedly having with this drug. It wasn’t exactly light reading. As I reported at the time:

“Pigs suffered from hyperactivity, trembling, broken limbs, inability to walk and death, according to FDA reports released under a Freedom of Information Act request. The FDA, however, says such data do not establish that the drug caused these effects.

“‘I’ve personally seen people overuse the drug in hogs and cattle,’ said Temple Grandin, a professor at Colorado State University and animal welfare expert. ‘I was in a plant once where they used too much ractopamine and the pigs were so weak they couldn’t walk. They had five or six people just dedicated to handling the lame pigs.’”

I later dove into even more detail about what we’d gleaned from these records, with the help of many experts, noting that FDA itself had also asked the drugmaker to add a caution label to the drug, sold as a feed additive, to specifically note that the product “may increase the number of injured and/or fatigued pigs during marketing.”

The story made quite a splash. I had reporters and government officials contacting me from all over – especially from the countries that were in trade disputes with the U.S. over the drug – but it also led the FDA to change how it discloses these reports to the public. Not long after the story ran, the agency decided to stop listing summaries of how many animals were reported to be involved in an adverse report. So instead of listing a running total of how many animals had issues with the drug — e.g. “death” or “lameness” —  the FDA summarized the reports: One report could represent one animal or thousands. (The agency recently changed public access to all this data.)

In the years immediately following this article, major pork producers in the U.S. began moving away from ractopamine, as they increasingly sought access to the market in China, which continues to have a firm ban on the drug’s use. Smithfield began converting its largest pork plant to being ractopamine-free in 2013, a move that many later saw as paving the way for a Chinese conglomerate to buy the company.

It was great to see FERN, a startup news outlet, invest in a big, complicated story. Investigating topics like this requires time and resources that many major media outlets are just not able or willing to commit. It was a wonderful learning experience for me, too. I had been covering food policy for a couple of years by then, but I hadn’t yet tackled such an ambitious investigative project. The story was a real lesson in how opaque the FDA can be, and how doing the extra work to understand something specialized and obscure can pay off. It also undoubtedly helped inform stories I would later write on the FDA and food during my time at Politico, including on Washington’s lack of funding for food safety reform and, most recently, on dysfunction within the agency’s food division.

I have now covered food policy at the FDA and beyond for more than a decade, a commitment to a beat that’s exceedingly rare in Washington, where reporters often bounce around to different topics and most mainstream outlets still do not see food and agriculture as a major sector of the economy and society that is worthy of beat coverage. John Harris, co-founder of Politico, recently reflected on my long run on this topic: “She has the kind of mastery that only comes from years on the beat. And she reaps the kind of rewards in agenda-setting impact that can’t be earned on cable television sets or long hours on Twitter.”

His assessment really gets at a much bigger problem, however: This kind of investigative work is still far too rare. I wish that I weren’t an exception, that more reporters were able to stay on a “niche” beat like food policy for a long time. When you stick with a topic, when you get to know all the players, when you understand the power dynamics, it’s a whole lot harder to get spun. You are better positioned to clearly call out when the government is not working. 

More than 10 years into this beat, and 10 years into the great work of FERN, I am more convinced than ever that we desperately need more accountability reporting on food and agriculture—and so many other issues! The government and other powerful interests in this space need more scrutiny, not less.

Until we have better business models and reporters are afforded the time to really dig into all of this on a regular basis, organizations like FERN are going to continue to be essential. So congratulations, on 10 years! And here’s to many more decades of investing in this important work.