John Sheehan, the chief dairy bureaucrat at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration

John Sheehan, the chief dairy bureaucrat at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration

You have to wonder: What has John Sheehan been trying so hard to hide in refusing to disclose information about himself?

When I was researching my book, The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights, one of the items on my check list was to profile John Sheehan, the head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Division of Plant and Dairy Food Safety, and apparent architect of the six-year federal and state assault on raw milk producers.

Not surprisingly, he refused my requests for an interview. I even traveled to a dairy regulator meeting in Florida to try to catch him on the fly, but he brushed me aside. I barely snapped a photo of him.

But what was particularly surprising was his refusal to provide any specific details about his career background, other than to direct an FDA public information person to tell me he was a patent lawyer who joined the FDA in 2000 after serving as “a mid-level manager within the dairy industry for 17 years. He has worked for some of America’s largest and most progressive dairy food organizations.”

When I asked for the names of these “progressive dairy food organizations,” he arrogantly refused. “He doesn’t think he has to disclose that information,” the public affairs person explained.

Hmmmm. This was a first in my journalistic experience–a manager in a publicly held company or a major government agency refusing to divulge the most basic of background information. It seems as if our public servants, being paid tens of thousands of dollars every year in salary and benefits, and overseeing millions more in budgetary allocations, have that minimal responsibility of sharing to do.

I tried looking Sheehan up on LinkedIn, where he is registered, but all it says there is that he graduated from University College, Cork, in Ireland. Even on LinkedIn, he was clearly trying to hide his career details.

Of course, the more a government official tries to hide, the more the public’s imagination goes to work. Had he perhaps run Dean Foods’ acquisition program to consolidate the dairy industry into even more of a monopoly? Maybe he oversaw marketing and sales of the rGBH hormone for Monsanto? A blog reader provided a link to a John Sheehan who had been disbarred as a lawyer. And in this conspiratorial age, curious minds can go off in a lot of different directions.

Finally, I obtained my answer. It took filing a Freedom of Information Act request, negotiating with the FDA (no, I wasn’t seeking his entire employment folder), and waiting some months. Earlier this week, I received my answer: a copy of the resume John Sheehan used to apply for his current job as head of the Dairy Division (page one and page two).

It turns out that 12 years of his 17-year career were spent as a Quality Control Manager for pizza cheese maker Leprino Foods Co. This included “managing a budget of approximately $1.5 million per anum, supervising the activities of between 21-26 personnel, including two supervisors…”

Certainly a far cry from his current position, where he’s in charge of some millions in budgetary allocations and hundreds of inspectors and other employees.

Before that, he spent four years as Quality Control Manager with something called Express Foods Co., of Fairfax, VT, which no longer exists. Its parent, Grand Metropolitan plc, merged with Guinness plc in 1997 to form Diageo. Prior to that, he spent a year with the Michigan Milk Producers Association as a Laboratory Supervisor.

As I indicated at the start, the resume is fairly non-noteworthy. So why does any of this matter? In the day-to-day din of discussion about food rights, I suppose it doesn’t matter much how an apparatchik like Sheehan worked his way up the ladder of business and government to a position of significant power over other people’s lives. In the larger scheme of the food rights war currently under way, though, the struggle to extract such simple pieces of information is symbolic of the FDA’s determination to resist even the smallest and seemingly most harmless signs of openness, and to turn them into a struggle.

I might initially have been tempted to think it was a reflection of Sheehan’s insecurity over the ordinary-ness of his previous career, but having observed his overall secretiveness and aggressiveness in fighting to deprive people of nutrient-dense foods, I’m sure it has more to do with his self-righteousness and determination to accumulate ever more power, to use at his discretion to impose the FDA’s will. It’s also symbolic of what we are up against as we fight the powers we work each day to pay and support.