Journalist Sues AG Department Over Feedlot 'Phone Book' Secrecy

June 18, 2008

A freelance journalist is challenging in court the US Department of Agriculture's efforts to keep secret its data on who owns the feedlots Americans can see and smell, but whose pollution the food industry does not want USDA to regulate.

In hopes of reassuring beef-importing nations who lack confidence that the USDA is effectively keeping US meat free from mad cow disease, the USDA has launched a "National Animal Identification System" (NAIS), which it hopes will ultimately track every animal in the US. Part of the system is the National Premises Information Repository (NPIR) — a "phone book" of livestock owners that includes major feedlots.

At industry urging, the USDA is trying to keep this information secret, arguing that it involves privacy and trade secrets. But consumer and environmental groups have argued that the public needs and has a right to the information.

Freelance ag journalist Mary-Louise Zanoni filed a FOIA request for the NPIR database. The USDA effectively denied the request and Zanoni's appeal. So Zanoni, a small New York farm-operator and Yale-trained lawyer, is taking the USDA to court.

She is challenging the legitimacy and good faith of USDA's 11th-hour move to shield the NPIR database under the Privacy Act.

Despite USDA's representations that the database is "voluntary," Zanoni believes many animal-owners have been placed in it without their knowledge or consent. She is also asking the USDA to reveal how many farmers have asked to be removed from the database and how USDA has responded to their requests.


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