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FOIA News: FOIA Food Fight

FOIA News (2015-16)Allan BlutsteinComment

Where's the Beef? You Won't be Able to Find out if Agricultural Groups Get Their Way

Beef, egg, and milk producers behind campaigns like “Got Milk” want to be exempt from FOIA requests

By Beth Kowitt, Fortune, May 2, 2016

A number of prominent agricultural commodity groups have successfully pushed for language to be included in the pending 2017 House Agricultural Appropriations Bill that “urges” the U.S. Department of Agriculture to exempt their respective promotional groups from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, which make otherwise-private government records available to the media and other organizations.

These promotional and research boards, funded by agricultural producers, market their commodities, in some cases with memorable slogans (think “Got Milk” or “The Other White Meat”). The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service oversees these programs, which are known as “checkoff programs” because fees to pay for them are automatically assessed to every producer.

The language in the bill, which is awaiting action by the House, makes the case that the research and promotion boards are neither agencies of the federal government nor funded by federal funds and therefore should not be subject to FOIA requests.

On April 11, 14 commodity groups—including the American Beekeeping Federation, the American Mushroom Institute, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Christmas Tree Association, the National Milk Producers Federation, the National Pork Producers Council, the National Potato Council, the National Watermelon Association, and United Egg Producers—wrote a letter to the heads of the House’s subcommittee on agriculture pushing for the change.

The commodity groups argue in the letter, which was obtained by Fortune, that since they reimburse the USDA for costs related to USDA’s oversight, including FOIA requests, the change would “help ensure that producer resources are focused on research and promotion activities.”

Read more here.