Several agricultural groups including United Egg Producers, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, and the National Pork Producers Council have requested an exemption for their respective promotional boards, also known as checkoff programs, from Freedom of Information Act requests.
They have cited the reasoning that these programs are not Federal agencies and therefore should not be subject to FOIA, saying in a letter to the congressional subcommittee overseeing appropriations for the USDA that "the research and promotion programs are funded solely with producer dollars, and therefore are not agencies of the Federal government or subject to the Freedom of Information Act.”
This request has successfully been included in the pending 2017 House Agricultural Appropriations Bill. If the bill passes, communications with the boards of these producers will become invisible to the public.
Checkoff programs work in tandem with agricultural groups to collect funds from producers of the respective agricultural community in order to promote and do research on the commodity. Each of these three groups' associated boards – respectively, the American Egg Board, Cattlemen’s Beef Board, and National Pork Board – are checkoff programs. The Supreme Court has ruled contributing to such programs mandatory and recognizes communications released by the programs as government speech. The administrators of agricultural lobbyists that are part of checkoff programs are appointed by the USDA.
“This is crony capitalism organized by Washington at its worst,” Republican senator Mike Lee told The Guardian with regards to the demand. “Not only is the federal government forcing market participants to collude, it is then actively engaging in a cover up of that collusion.”
This demand comes less than a year after reports that the American Egg Board had attempted to stifle competition from Hampton Creek, the manufacturer of eggless mayonnaise brand, Just Mayo. This information was made available thanks to the Freedom of Information Act.
“Now that some of their blatantly improper dealings have been exposed via FOIA, instead of cleaning up their acts, these boards are attempting to exempt themselves from FOIA altogether,” Freedom of Information Act expert Ryan Shapiro told The Guardian. “But as the already released documents demonstrate, these boards are sorely in need of greater transparency and must not be allowed to shroud their already opaque dealings with even more secrecy.”
The proposed change comes at a moment when the U.S. federal government is already reviewing FOIA for greater accessibility and compliance.
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