Big Agriculture Groups Are Trying to Avoid the Prying Eyes of the Media

By Mike Pomranz |
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© Bruce Leighty/Getty Images

When is a government program not a government program? When they don’t want to be subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, apparently.

That is the heart of a growing controversy surrounding language in the 2017 House Agricultural Appropriations Bill that pushes for the USDA to exempt the promotional groups it oversees from FOIA requests that would allow journalists to peer into the inner-workings of these programs.

To what extent these groups are actually part of the government is, in itself, very confusing. Industry associations like the American Mushroom Institute and the National Potato Council – just two of the many organization pushing for the exemption – asked the government to form so-called “checkoff programs” that could collect mandatory fees from producers that could then be used for advertising and other promotional efforts. Because of this, they are subject to government oversight by the USDA. However, these industries argue that they aren’t federally funded, even going so far as to reimburse the expenses of USDA oversight, so they shouldn’t be subject to FOIA requests.

So what’s the big deal? Well, requests made under the FOIA have actually had major repercussions for these groups and their programs as recently as last year when the CEO of the American Egg Board had to resign after an investigation found the group was trying to put the kibosh on egg-free mayo maker Hampton Creek. “I can’t imagine a scenario in which this wouldn’t be inserted into the bill if not for the experience we had last year,” Josh Tetrick, CEO of Hampton Creek, told Fortune.

Critics of the opposed to the exemptions say that these groups want to have their cake and eat it too—that is, they want government programs but don’t want them subject to government rules. Maybe they can word a cake owning/eating exemption into the Appropriations Bill as well.

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