MARY CLARE JALONICK Associated Press Writer WASHINGTON (AP)
Journalists and government watchdog groups say that crucial food safety information could be kept from the public under a farm bill the Senate is debating. The Society of Professional Journalists, the American Civil Liberties Union and others say an attempt to ban the disclosure of information from a national animal tracking system could exempt some Agriculture Department documents from freedom of information laws. "It's essential that citizens be made aware of dangers in their own communities, including livestock that can cause serious illness and death," said David Cuillier of the journalists' organization. Cattle groups say such disclosure could harm their business. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which represents ranchers, has lobbied on behalf of the plan. Colin Woodall, director of legislative affairs for the group, said much of the tracking information is sensitive and unrelated to food safety. "If it gets in the wrong hands it could be very problematic for our members," he said. "It's like Coca-Cola having to disclose its secret formula to everyone who wants to file a FOIA request." The chairman of the Senat e Agriculture Committee, Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, included the language in the bill and is now "further examining its implications," committee spokeswoman Kate Cyrul. Cyrul said Thursday that the provision was included because ranchers were concerned that meatpackers, retailers or the government could misuse their information. Ranchers now may choose to participate in the tracking program, which assigns numbers to individual animals or groups of animals. That way, the government could easily find Animals related to those deemed to be infected with mad cow or other animal diseases. But many ranchers have declined to sign up, partly because of the disclosure concerns. The program was created after the nation's first case of mad cow disease, in 2003. The Senate bill would allow the department to share some of the information with states and other government agencies under certain conditions, including threats of disease or threats to homeland security. But it would be against the law in most cases for the general public to access the information.