Report: FOIA requests to USDA checkoff programs rarely fulfilled

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Photo courtesy of National Pork Board

The USDA’s marketing arm completely fulfills only one in five Freedom of Information Act requests, according to a new report from a government watchdog group.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report on Oct. 25 about the status of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests related to all 22 commodities with research and promotion programs, more commonly known as “checkoffs,” between 2012 and 2016.

“Pork, the other white meat” and “the incredible edible egg” are familiar marketing slogans to many U.S. consumers, and were both the result of these checkoffs.

Checkoff programs are funded through a tax on the sales of some goods and overseen by the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service.

They require producers to pay a certain portion of their sales to the program, which goes primarily to advertising initiatives to generate demand for agricultural products, ranging from cotton to paper and packaging.

Nearly 58 percent of the 104 FOIA requests were granted in part, about 19 percent were granted in full and less than 3 percent were denied, according to the report.

This is much lower than the percentage of requests fulfilled in full across all USDA agencies - 81 percent in fiscal year 2016, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice. That percentage, however, is skewed by the USDA's Farm Service Agency, which received the highest number of requests last year and completed nearly 95 percent of them in full.

The GAO said that information released to FOIA requesters “is intended, among other things, to contribute to the understanding of government actions, including the disclosure of waste, fraud, and abuse.”

Each of the 22 commodities with checkoffs has a board, such as the American Egg Board or Cattlemen’s Beef Board, whose members are nominated by their industry and then appointed by the secretary of agriculture.

One of the most profitable programs is the soybean checkoff, which collected $109.1 million in 2014 through a mandatory assessment of 0.5 percent of the net market price.

It is the responsibility of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service to ensure that checkoff boards don’t engage in false advertising of their products, attempt to influence government policy or participate in other activities that could present a conflict of interest.

Because checkoffs are overseen by a federal agency, they are subject to FOIA requests.

A majority of the requests submitted in the five years the report examined were for protein products, with 69 percent relating to egg, pork, beef or lamb checkoffs. Dairy and liquid milk checkoffs had the second highest portion of requests, making up 19 percent.

FOIA requesters filed 11 administrative appeals and six lawsuits against the Agricultural Marketing Service, according to the report. Four of the lawsuits are currently in process. All were for protein-related checkoff programs for beef, dairy, eggs and pork.

The report states that one recent FOIA request regarding checkoff programs “revealed the potential for activities that did not comply with the law.”

A 2012 lawsuit filed by the Humane Society of the United States against the USDA is based on documents obtained through a FOIA request. The suit alleges that the National Pork Board scammed $60 million from farmers to purchase four trademarks, including “Pork, The Other White Meat,” from the National Pork Producer’s Council, a political lobbying group. The case is still in process.

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