SPJ Opposes Senate AG Comm Livestock Secrecy Bill

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Nov 08, 2007 09:57 ET

SPJ Signs Letter Opposing Senate Agriculture Committee's Attempt to Keep Livestock Information Secret

INDIANAPOLIS, IN--(Marketwire - November 8, 2007) - The Society of Professional Journalists and 28 journalism-advocacy organizations signed onto a Nov. 7 letter to members of the U.S. Senate that opposes non-disclosure provisions in the 2007 Farm Bill approved by the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee on Oct. 25. The language was drafted by Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

The bill in question stems from the outbreak of mad cow disease that tainted the U.S. beef supply in 2003-04. Federal officials tracked shipments of suspected meat to individual supermarkets, but failed to tell citizens which supermarkets received contaminated meat. Consequently, the public was forced to take a risk with their health when eating red meat. As a result, the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration developed a tracking system to follow the lifecycle of a food animal. Despite the government's efforts to prevent further outbreaks, farmers and food industry groups contested, amid concerns the system could hurt business.

"It's essential that citizens be made aware of dangers in their own communities, including livestock that can cause serious illness and death," said SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Chairman David Cuillier. "This bill contradicts everything we as Americans stand for in government transparency. To criminalize the disclosure of cow directory information is shameful. It's essential that the public is able to trust its government, and it's essential we can trust what we eat."

Section 10305 of the Livestock Title exempts disclosure of information from the National Animal Identification Service (NAIS), a move that would violate the Open Government Act introduced by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. If passed, it would allow the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture to decide if and when to disclose NAIS information to the owner of an animal in question, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, or to other parties. The bill also would allow the Secretary to disclose the information to foreign governments, but it would forbid the Secretary from disclosing information to the public. Additionally, if the bill is determined constitutional under the First Amendment by the U.S. Supreme Court, reporters and publishers could be jailed or fined for publishing NAIS information.

"The status and safety of the nation's agricultural infrastructure and ultimately our food supply is of vital public interest," said SPJ National President Clint Brewer. "Closing access to this information and even criminalizing the publication of it in certain instances is not in the best interest of a free press or the American people."

The 2007 Farm Bill is being considered this week on the U.S. Senate floor. To further halt the bill from passage, SPJ members and public citizens are being encouraged to write or e-mail their U.S. Senator. For a listing of Senators and their e-mail addresses visit Senate.gov.

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, the Society of Professional Journalists promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For further information about SPJ, please visit http://www.spj.org.


November 6, 2007

Dear Senator:

We are writing to express opposition to the non-disclosure provisions (Sec. 10305 of the Livestock Title) in the 2007 Farm Bill approved by the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee on October 25, 2007. This language would create an unnecessary bar to public disclosure and use or publication of information related to the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). This secrecy provision is not in the House-passed bill and should be removed from the Senate bill. Section 10305 creates a Freedom of Information Act exemption, without explicitly stating so, by prohibiting disclosure of information including "animal identification" information and information gathered in the USDA's NAIS. That prohibition violates the letter and spirit of a bill (S 849, the "OPEN Government Act of 2007") the Senate passed just this year on August 3 -- in which the Senate expressed its intent to transparently declare new exemptions to FOIA in legislation creating them. Under the exemption, only the Agriculture Secretary would be allowed to disclose NAIS information to the owner of the animal in question, a state agriculture department, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, foreign governments, or to other parties when ordered to do so by a court. It would preempt state and local disclosure laws. As a result, the public would remain in the dark. The bill also forbids any "use" (beyond those listed above) by "any individual or entity" of NAIS information. Members of the public and the press could face criminal or civil penalties for publishing information from the NAIS. By criminalizing the publication, broadcast, or disclosure of information that may have been legally obtained, Section 10305 goes way beyond most existing law in imposing disproportionately harsh penalties for press activities protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Since at least 2005, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has been gathering contact information for livestock owners and storing it in a National Premises Information Repository. It appears that the new bar to disclosure in the Senate Farm Bill would remove this information from public access, even though the USDA itself has referred to these records as no more than the information in a “phone book.” Moreover, the Agriculture Department has long assured the public in its fact sheets on NAIS that federal law already "protects individuals' private information and confidential business information from disclosure." The existing Privacy Act ( 5 U.S.C. § 552a) and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA, 5 U.S.C. § 552 ) provide an adequate legal framework for doing the job. We urge you to support and vote for any and all efforts to strike Section 10305, which prohibits disclosure of information under a National Animal Identification System, from the 2007 Farm Bill currently before the Senate for consideration, or to do so in conference.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to call Patrice McDermott,
Director, OpenTheGovernment.org, 202 332 6736. Thank you. Sincerely, American Association of Law Libraries American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression American Civil Liberties Union American Library Association American Policy Center Bill of Rights Defense Committee Californians Aware Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) DownsizeDC.org, Inc. EnviroJustice Essential Information Federation of American Scientists Florida First Amendment Foundation Fund for Constitutional Government Government Accountability Project James Madison Project Minnesota Coalition on Government Information National Freedom of Information Coalition The National Security Archive Northeast Organic Farming Association/Massachusetts Chapter, Inc. (NOFA/Mass) OMB Watch OpenTheGovernment.org Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Society of Professional Journalists Special Libraries Association U.S. Bill of Rights Foundation United Food & Commercial Workers International Union

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THE non-disclosure provisions in the 2007 Farm Bill is nothing more than stopping the public from knowing where they got poisoned from. ITs all about potential litigation, or the refusal of ever letting that happen. What a stranglehold the industry has on the consumer. They are free to poison you, but you cannot do anything about it. AND if you could, bush would probably veto that too. go figure $$$ It's kinda like the hospitals that infect you with MRSA, that don't have to keep records of infection, or tell you how you got it, and or how many more were infected there. I am surprised the USA consumer eats any USA product anymore. safest in the world my hind end. how about the most corrupt in the world. the consumer hasn't a chance in hell here, its' all corporate and political. wake up America. ...TSS



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