Retail chains that accept food stamps are fighting a regulatory initiative to make public store-by-store data on their participation in the $80 billion government program.
How many food stamps — known officially as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program — are redeemed at which stores has long been viewed by the companies and the Department of Agriculture as a commercial trade secret and thus exempt from disclosure.
But a recent federal appeals court decision on a Freedom of Information Act request by a South Dakota newspaper has forced USDA to reconsider that stance.
The first step in the reconsideration was USDA's Request for Information in August from retailers and others in the form of five questions about the effect of making data public about food stamp transactions.
Based on the five questions, it appears the USDA is preparing a proposal that would not publish data about which types of foods were purchased, only the total dollar amounts of food stamps per store per year. That information could serve as a red flag for small stores that illegally exchange food stamps for cash.
The 30-day comment period closed Sept. 10, and the 539 responses it generated included dozens from corporate retailers and food industry trade groups ardently opposing transparency on food stamp transactions, as well as small convenience store owners making the same case.
Sears-owned Kmart, for example, said making the transaction data public "would provide our competitors with competitively sensitive information about the types of customers served by our stores in locations throughout the United States."
But the retailer also expressed concern that making food stamp data public might "scare off" shoppers who "may incorrectly assume that more crimes take place in 'food stamp' stores or incorrectly assume that certain racial or ethnic groups are likely to shop there."
The National Retail Federation trade group also insisted that the data is a trade secret that should be kept out of the public view.
But the federation offered another reason for retailers opposing the proposal: "Release of business confidential information might lead to participating companies leaving the program."
Food stamp recipients would then have fewer stores in which to shop, thus potentially making the program less convenient for them, according to the federation.
Federal officials are required to give significant weight to the comments they receive during such a public comment period.
But some individuals and small store owners offered very different views, as the Washington Examiner reported at the outset of the comment period in August.
Keith Emerson of Rutledge, Mo., said food stamps are "a good and necessary program," but "there are many people using the program because they don't want to work for a living.
Emerson continued, saying "simply watch [food stamp] card users in a check-out line, and it soon becomes apparent who needs the program and who doesn't."
Similarly, Nona Clark operates a small Oregon convenience store. "In order to take food stamps, we have items like can meat, fruits and vegetables. No one buys this stuff and we have to throw it away because it expires," she said.
"All your food stamp customers ever buy is candy; chips and cokes, then turn around and buy beer and cigarettes with cash," she said.