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Pork producers’ petition to federal agency deemed private

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         EIGHTH CIRCUIT         Freedom of Information         Jan 7, 2000    

Pork producers’ petition to federal agency deemed private

  • Pork producers can force the Department of Agriculture to invoke a privacy exception to the federal Freedom of Information Act on their behalf.

Pork producers who petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stop cost assessments against them for advertising campaigns such as “Pork: The Other White Meat” can force the agency to keep their participation secret to protect their privacy, a federal appeals panel in St. Louis (8th Cir.) ruled in early January.

The court ruled for the producers who signed a petition in a reverse Freedom of Information Act case brought to prohibit the government from releasing their identities and other information.

Although federal courts have allowed generous agency use of the privacy exemption to the federal FOI Act over the last decade, no federal appeals court has ever before ordered the government to invoke the FOI Act’s privacy exemption. Business entities have won reverse FOI appeals in the past, but only to require agencies to use the trade secrets or business information exemption (Exemption 4).

The Pork Promotion, Research and Consumer Information Act of 1985 requires pork producers to pay the National Pork Board to carry out marketing and promotional campaigns to better the market for pork.

The law calls upon the Agriculture Department to conduct a referendum for stopping the assessments if 15 percent of pork producers and importers request it. In May, the Campaign for Family Farms, an association of independent farmers and businesses opposing the assessment, presented the agency with 19,000 signatures seeking a referendum.

In finding the privacy exemption applies, the appeals panel relied in part upon a provision in the law that calls for a secret balloting of pork producers at the end of the process. Because signers of the petition claimed that they would vote to stop the assessment, they revealed how they ultimately would vote in the secret balloting, the court said. Release of petition information would intrude upon their privacy by revealing how they would vote, the court said.

The National Pork Producers Council that works on the marketing campaigns had filed an FOI request for the petition with the Department of Agriculture in June.

In July, the Campaign filed a reverse FOI case in federal District Court in Minneapolis asking the court to enjoin release of information about the petitioners to protect their privacy.

In August, the agency issued an opinion stating that no exemptions to the FOI Act applied. It found no privacy interest in the petition information and said that the public has a strong interest in an open referendum process. Only secret balloting at the end of the process should be closed, the agency said.

However, in September, the federal District Court enjoined release. The agency appealed, and the National Pork Producers Council intervened to argue for release of the information.

(Campaign for Family Farms v. Glickman )

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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