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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.
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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.

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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:

  • Requests granted in full, granted in part, or denied and exemptions: Nearly 58 percent (60 of 104) of check-off requests during that period were granted in part; about 19 percent (20 of 104) were granted in full; less than 3 percent (3 of 104) were denied; about 17 percent (18 of 104) either had no records, were withdrawn by the requester, were a duplicate request, did not receive a response from the requester, had no agency records of the requested information, or the records were not reasonably described by the requester; and less than 3 percent (3 of 104) had not yet been fulfilled and therefore, had no final disposition.

  • Length of time to fulfill requests: The average number of days to fulfill a check-off-related request ranged from a low of 58 days in fiscal year 2012 to a high of 120 days in fiscal year 2013, with an overall average of 77 days during the 5 years reviewed.

  • Request backlog: The number of backlogged requests as of the end of each fiscal year ranged from two in fiscal year 2014 to eight in fiscal year 2015. AMS FOIA officials said two FOIA contractors were hired in the fall of 2016 to help with both backlogged and ongoing FOIA requests. AMS FOIA officials said program staff provides interim releases of information to requesters as the review process progresses. In addition, AMS officials said that, in June 2017, the AMS FOIA office was moved organizationally within AMS in order to handle FOIA requests in a more efficient and timely manner.

  • Administrative appeals and lawsuits: FOIA requesters filed 11 administrative appeals and six lawsuits against AMS. Four of the six lawsuits are currently in process and two were dismissed.

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.

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Agricultural programsAppealsConfidential communicationsData collectionFreedom of informationInformation disclosureResearch programsWaiversFreedom of information requests