THE release of private information on the owners of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO), including business and personal information, has caused quite a bit of concern in the countryside that parties such as environmental groups got their hands on sensitive information.
The Environmental Protection Agency started gathering information from CAFOs with the intention of making it publicly available and searchable through its website in 2012 but then withdrew a rule to do so after livestock producers raised concerns about activists harassing them or posing a threat to the nation's food supply.
Even though EPA pulled the rule, environmental groups were able to obtain the information through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The information released was gathered from CAFOs in more than 30 states and included many family farmers and ranchers who feed less than 1,000 head and are not even subject to regulation under the Clean Water Act. In some instances, farmers' home addresses, phone numbers and email addresses and information on the operations' employees were released, the National Pork Producers Council reported.
Some legislative bills could be in the works to keep that from happening in the future.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was questioned by House Agriculture Committee members during a March 5 hearing as to whether the U.S. Department of Agriculture weighed in on EPA's decision to release the data to environmental groups even after it pulled the CAFO rule last year.
Vilsack said EPA realized that the release "probably shouldn't have been done" and added that USDA expressed concern about what happened.
He noted that USDA wasn't "aware of the fact that (the information) could be released as it was" and was open to suggestions from Rep. Rick Crawford (R., Ark.) to protect the possible misuse of the information now that it's out there.
Forty members of the House sent a letter to EPA acting administrator Bob Perciasepe asking EPA to explain its reasoning in releasing the data, noting that "livestock and poultry producers in our districts and across the country agree that these types of actions pose serious risks, which may include targeted harassment and even bioterrorism."
The letter requests a response to several questions within 30 days. The group, led by Crawford, demanded answers on why EPA obtained producers' private information and, most important, what steps the agency will take to protect the affected producers while ensuring that these actions will never happen again.
"We urge you to suspend any efforts to assemble a public, national database of detailed and personal producer information and instead refocus your efforts to ensure that the recent release of data is not misused in a way that threatens our nation's producers and the integrity of our nation's food supply that farm families make possible," the letter states.
National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. vice president of government affairs Collin Woodall said he is working with members of Congress on several options to "tighten up the information required and look at what truly needs to be available to the public" so similar situations don't occur in the future.