The fiscal 2017 funding bill for agricultural programs run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture includes language supported by many agricultural organizations that would exempt from the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) any research and promotion boards funded by grower checkoff fees. The legislation, approved last week by the House Appropriations Committee, is pending full House approval.
The House language currently reads: “The funding used to operate and carry out the activities of the various research and promotion programs is provided by producers and industry stakeholders, and employees on the boards are not federal employees. Therefore, the committee urges USDA to recognize that such boards are not subject to the provisions of 5 U.S.C. Section 552 (the Freedom of Information Act).”
USDA now complies with FOIA requests, subject to certain exemptions, on behalf the 14 commodity organizations that administer checkoff programs and bills them for costs associated with such requests, including records searches.
In an April 11 letter to the House appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, rural development, food and drug administration and related agencies, the organizations pointed out that checkoff funds used for the operations and activities of the commodity organizations are paid by producers and industry stakeholders and that employees of the organizations are not federal employees; as such, they shouldn’t be subject to FOIA.
The need branches potentially from lawsuits, such as one filed by The Humane Society of United States (HSUS) against the National Pork Board regarding The Other White Meat trademark. When groups sue but have other intentions, such as in HSUS's case, then the producers' checkoffs serve.
“This is asking Congress to make it clear that checkoff programs do not fall under FOIA requests because they are fully paid for with producer dollars for their time. Responding to FOIA requests in burdening these programs and diverting producer dollars that are intended for research and promotion,” said Chase Adams, spokesman for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn.
Organizations that signed the letter included: National Potato Council, National Milk Producers Federation, National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn., National Christmas Tree Assn., American Beekeeping Federation, AmericanHort, American Mushroom Institute, American Soybean Assn., Michigan Christmas Tree Assn., National Cotton Council, National Pork Producers Council, National Watermelon Assn., United Dairymen of Arizona and United Egg Producers.
The fiscal 2017 House agricultural appropriations bill will now go forward for consideration by the whole House of Representatives. The Senate has not yet introduced its version. If approved, the provision would allow the exemption for only one year.