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Agricultural Promotion Programs:
Status of Freedom of Information Act Requests

GAO-18-55R, Published: Oct 24, 2017. Publicly Released: Oct 24, 2017.

Fast Facts

USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) oversees the work done by 22 commodity research and promotion programs, such as for dairy or pork. These programs are funded by commodity producers, and they are explicitly prohibited from engaging in certain activities—such as promoting false advertising.

We reviewed the 104 Freedom of Information Act requests submitted to AMS for those programs during fiscal years 2012 through 2016. We found that AMS received a range of requests each year—from a low of 12 requests in 2013 to a high of 35 requests in 2016—and took an average of 77 days to fulfill these requests.

Examples of commodities covered by research and promotion programs (commonly known as check-off programs)

Photo collage of a cow, honey, pig, blueberries, cotton, cheese and soybeans.

Photo collage of a cow, honey, pig, blueberries, cotton, cheese and soybeans.

Highlights

What GAO Found

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) data indicated that, for fiscal years 2012 through 2016, the number of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests related to agricultural research and promotion programs—more commonly known as check-off programs—totaled 104 requests and ranged from a low of 12 requests in 2013 to a high of 35 requests in 2016. Specifically, among other things, GAO found the following during that same period:

Why GAO Did This Study

AMS is responsible for the oversight of 22 commodity check-off programs. The term check-off refers to the way the research and promotion programs are funded: an assessment is paid for each unit of a commodity sold, produced, or imported. Check-off programs are thus funded by an assessment on sales of the commodity and do not receive any federal appropriations. Each check-off program is operated by a board, whose members, for the most part, are appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture from nominations submitted by industry. Check-off boards are explicitly prohibited from (1) engaging in any action that could be a conflict of interest, (2) using assessed funds to influence any legislation or governmental action or policy, and (3) promoting any advertising that may be false, misleading or disparaging to another agricultural commodity.  

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requires federal agencies to provide the public with access to government information on the basis of the principles of openness and accountability in government. Each year, federal agencies release information to FOIA requesters that is intended, among other things, to contribute to the understanding of government actions, including the disclosure of waste, fraud, and abuse. One recent FOIA request regarding check-off programs revealed the potential for activities that did not comply with the law.

GAO was asked to review the status of AMS’s FOIA requests related to check-off programs. This report summarizes AMS data on FOIA requests for check-off programs. To complete this work, GAO collected data on FOIA requests from AMS and analyzed that data to determine the status of requests from fiscal years 2012 through 2016, the most recent years for which complete data are available. To assess the reliability of the data, GAO interviewed USDA and AMS officials about how the data were compiled, how they were checked, and any limitations of the data. GAO found the data to be sufficiently reliable for the purposes of this report.

What GAO Recommends 

GAO is not making any recommendation in this report.

For more information, contact Steve Morris at (202) 512-3841 or morriss@gao.gov.

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