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Why agricultural industry groups could soon be exempt from FOIA laws

Congress announced its support for Freedom of Information Act exemptions for agricultural promotions groups such as the National Pork Board and others. 

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    Hampton Creek Foods CEO Josh Tetrick holds a species of yellow pea used to make Just Mayo, a plant-based mayonnaise, in San Francisco. The Agriculture Department says it is looking into documents obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request that show that an egg industry organization under government oversight tried to harm sales of an imitation mayonnaise.
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After recent controversy, the US Congress has asked for Freedom of Information Act exemptions for organizations promoting agricultural products, including groups behind promotional campaigns such as “Pork, the other white meat.”

Although the US Department of Agriculture oversees advertising campaigns for different agricultural industries, which range from the meat and egg industry to Christmas tree organizations, the industries themselves pay for promotional campaigns.

After a controversy involving the American Egg Board last year, which arose when it was revealed through public records requests that the group had attempted to prevent eggless mayonaise sales at Whole Foods, several agricultural industries called for exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act.

After the Whole Foods scandal, the head of the American Egg Board stepped down, and the USDA launched an investigation. Yet, the American Egg Board, which is legally barred from lobbying, claims it had nothing to do with the FOIA exemption request.

"The American Egg Board had no role or involvement in the request by trade organizations for an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act," according to American Egg Board representative Kevin Burkam.

In April, 14 trade associations contacted the leadership of the House Appropriations agriculture subcommittee, asking for exemption. The letter was not signed, however, by the automatic promotional funding programs known as checkoff programs, as doing so would be lobbying.

The industries involved in calls for exemption based their requests on the claim that they are “not agencies of the federal government," despite the fact that the USDA oversees promotional campaigns.

Instead of being used to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests, these industries say, money that agricultural producers give to the promotional campaigns should be used for research and promotion.

The checkoff programs have traditionally been little regulated. Agricultural producers are required to give to the organizations in exchange for promotional campaigns that benefit their industry.

Industry boards have increased their revenue due to advertising efforts – the pork industry board saw $98 million in revenue last year.

"It's really pretty cut and dry,” Chase Adams, a spokesman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, told the Associated Press.

Promotional organizations do have many critics, however, and have faced legal challenges in the past. In 2012, the USDA was challenged in court by the Humane Society, which claimed that the National Pork Board gave money to pork industry lobbyists, although board funds are not intended to pay lobbyists.

In 2012, the USDA inspector general also announced that the department could use greater oversight, citing misuse of funds as a particular concern.

The House Appropriations Committee approved the legislation in mid-April. While the Freedom of Information Act exemption is technically non-binding, the language of the legislation indicates that the legislature will press the USDA if it does not comply.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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