When Freedom of Information Act expert Ryan Shapiro saw reports about Unilever filing a false advertising lawsuit against Hampton Creek, the MIT Ph.D. candidate thought there might be more under the surface.

What drew Shapiro, who a few years ago made headlines for his prolific FOIA requests to the FBI, to Hampton Creek’s situation was the idea that perhaps government collusion had played some role in the startup’s challenges with the egg industry mammoth and maker of Hellmann’s mayonnaise.

“It is something new, it’s not just another competitor. It is something that threatens to render obsolete an entire industry,” he said of the startup’s relationship to the egg industry.

Shapiro’s instincts were right. His request for public records from the U.S. Department of Agriculture revealed that the USDA-appointed American Egg Board had been waging a calculated campaign against the Bay Area food startup. The board had attempted to have Hampton Creek's Just Mayo products removed from Whole Foods and advised Unilever on how to proceed with its lawsuit, which was later dropped and had been filed on grounds that Just Mayo’s name incorrectly implied the product contained eggs.

That initial batch of documents isn’t all that Shapiro requested as part of his experiment - he says he’s awaiting responses to additional requests pertaining to the startup. Depending on what turns up, he may in the future file similar requests to see how other corporations and industries respond to threats to their bottom lines (like startups). 

FOIA requests are typically associated with activists, journalists and academics. But as the Hampton Creek example illustrates, businesses - especially small businesses and startups facing regulatory issues and competition from entrenched corporations - can also benefit from information contained in public records.

“I think (startups) should be going after those documents, but it’s much easier said than done,” Shapiro says. "I think everyone should be interested in what records government agencies are withholding from the people.”

Here are some tips from Shapiro for those requesting documents from federal agencies:

  • Each government agency responds differently to requests. Some are more hostile than others.
  • Despite the time frames for responses set out by Freedom of Information Act, the process of obtaining records is actually really slow.
  • Be ready to sue for documents if you really want them. “I would say litigate, period, and hire expert council in doing so,” says Shapiro.
  • About that expert council: If you hire a lawyer, make sure that lawyer is not only a FOIA expert but an expert in the operations of the federal agency from which you are requesting records.

Shapiro comments that the Freedom of Information Act isn't a law that lets you request information so much as it is one that lets you request specific documents. He also notes that the feds are classifying more and more documents as confidential and secret. So don't think a request is a magic bullet, though you might find some gems.