This New Bill Would Protect Food Companies From Public Scrutiny

© Andrew Olney / Getty Images

By Gillie Houston Posted May 04, 2016

The Big Food lobbyists responsible for familiar ad campaigns like "The Incredible, Edible Egg," "Got Milk," and "Pork, the Other White Meat" are seeking a government-regulated exemption from public scrutiny.

A new piece of legislation being introduced by Congress is about to make America's food companies a little less transparent. The Big Food lobbyists responsible for familiar ad campaigns like "The Incredible, Edible Egg," "Got Milk," and "Pork, the Other White Meat" are seeking a government-regulated exemption from public scrutiny. The exemption would protect large agricultural organizations' ad groups from the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), excluding them from the prying eyes of the public.

The proposed bill prevents the ad groups from having to comply with FOIA requests to publically release certain documents—documents that are often integral to journalistic investigations. With this legislation, The House Appropriations Committee urged the USDA to recognize that these ad campaigns are "not agencies of the federal government," and thus shouldn't be subject to FOIA laws.

As the Associated Press points out, this bill comes in response to an embarrassing moment for the American Egg Board last year, when a campaign to eliminate the sale of vegan mayonnaise competitor Just Mayo in Whole Foods was exposed. The release of those documents lead to a USDA investigation into the Egg Board's activities, and a condemnation that cost the head of the board her job.

While the Egg Board itself wasn't involved in proposing the new bill to Congress—as it's a so-called government "checkoff program" that isn't allowed to engage in lobbying—some of the industry associations backing the bill are the United Egg Producers, the National Watermelon Association, the American Mushroom Institute, the National Potato Council, and even the National Christmas Tree Association.

However, the bill has shed new critical light on these checkoff programs, which were created by the government as a way to collect mandatory fees from agricultural producers for advertising efforts. Since their establishment, these programs have come under their fair share of scrutiny for engaging in misuse of funds and involvement in other businesses' operations (e.g. the Egg Board and Just Mayo).

Naturally, this bill has already drawn opposition on all sides, from Senator Mike Lee, to Just Mayo CEO John Tetrick, who says he fears this bill will allow checkoff programs to operate outside the boundaries of the law without the possible public ramifications.

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