Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Requests
In keeping with our society's interest in an open government, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows access to almost all Federal agency records. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), like other Federal agencies, is required to provide requestors with copies of certain records. However, many Agency documents are available to the public without having to file a FOIA request. These include press releases, speeches, consumer and technical publications, statistics, congressional testimony, and some letters and memoranda. Many of these can be found on the FSIS Web site (www.fsis.usda.gov).
FSIS is the public health agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture responsible for ensuring that the nation's commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged, as required by the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act, and the Egg Products Inspection Act. Please note FSIS only maintains records relating to its food safety mission. For instructions as to the procedure to follow in requesting material under FOIA from other government agencies, please consult their Web sites or contact their FOIA offices.
What information is not available through FOIA?
The FOIA provides access to almost all Federal agency records or portions of them, except for those that are protected from disclosure by legal exemptions and exclusions. The Agency's openness to provide information is balanced with the public's interest in preserving the privacy and confidentiality of sensitive, personal, and commercial information and the integrity of the government's decision-making and law enforcement proceedings. Therefore, there are some documents or portions of documents that are protected by law from release to the public. This means requestors will not always receive the records that they ask for or may receive documents with portions deleted. Wrongfully-disclosed information could cause competitive harm by disclosing proprietary information, result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, or compromise the integrity of governmental decision-making processes. Also, FSIS employees can be held criminally liable for wrongfully disclosing information that should have been protected.
How do I make a request?
We encourage the public to explore FSIS and USDA's Web sites to see if the information sought is already available via the Web prior to making a FOIA request. All FOIA requests must be in writing. You may send your request via mail, fax, or e-mail. You should include the notation "Attention: FOIA Request" on the front of your request envelope or fax cover, and also at the beginning of your request letter. In this way you will be sure that the responsible individual receives your request without delay. In mailing your request, identify the documents you want as clearly as possible. The more precise and accurate the request, the more likely you are to get a complete response. Any facts or details you can give regarding the time, place, authors, events and subjects will be helpful in our search as well as in determining the records responsive to your request. For example, include the following in your request: Subject; Time documents were probably created; Case or file number, if applicable; Your telephone number, e-mail address, and mailing address; Fee-related information (see below). You do not have to state the reasons for your request.
What fees or costs are involved?
Fee Categories: When making your request, you should specify the fee category in which you feel your request falls and the amount you are willing to pay. The FOIA divides requestors into four categories:
- Commercial use requesters, may be charged fees for searching for documents, reviewing the documents, and duplication.
- Educational or noncommercial scientific institutions may be charged only for duplication, minus the first 100 pages.
- Representatives of the news media may be charged only for duplication, minus the first 100 pages.
- All other requesters may be charged fees for searching for documents and duplication minus the first 2 hours of search time and the first 100 pages.
If you do not specify the amount that you are willing to pay, FSIS will assume by your making the request, that you are willing to pay up to $25.00. If FSIS anticipates that fees associated with processing your request will exceed $25.00, you will be notified. In cases where no documents are located, the Agency is entitled to charge the requester for any applicable search time involved.
The FOIA provides for the collection of fees for:
- Searches: Time spent in looking for and retrieving material, either paper or electronic files, that may be responsive to the request, including personnel hours (clerical, professional or managerial).
- Reviews: Time spent to determine if the record is releasable under legal guidelines, excluding the resolution of legal or policy issues. This includes blacking out or redaction of text.
- Reproduction: Generating a copy of a requested record in the appropriate medium, for example paper or computer disk.
|Category||Search Cost||Review Cost||Reproduction Cost|
|Educational & Scientific News Media||None||None||First 100 pages are free. $.20 cents per page after that|
|Commercial||Clerical: $10.00 per hr. Professional: $20.00 per hr.||Clerical: $10.00 per hr. Professional: $20.00 per hr.||$.20 cents per page|
|All Others||Clerical: $10.00 per hr. Professional: $20.00 per hr.||None||First 100 pages are free. $.20 cents per page after that|
Fee Waivers: Fee waivers may be granted when disclosure of the documents is in the public interest and is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the Government and is not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester. When mailing a request for a fee waiver, consider the following:
- Does the document concern the operations or activities of the government?
- Is disclosure likely to contribute to the public understanding of these operations and activities? and
- Will that contribution be significant?
Requests for fee waivers must be fully documented and justified by written explanation.
What happens with my request?
The FSIS FOIA office tracks incoming FOIA requests and works with FSIS offices that hold the requested records to retrieve them for the requestor. The assigned FOIA officer reviews the records page by page to determine which information can and cannot be released to the requestor. Handling of FOIA requests by a single staff in the Agency helps to ensure that requests are treated consistently and that the interests and rights of the requestors are properly addressed.
How long will it take to answer my request?
We are required to send you an answer within 20 working days of receiving your request. Our response might include all the materials you requested, a portion of your request with a listing of reasons why we withheld information, or a denial of all information. If denied, we will inform you of your appeal rights. If there is a delay in fulfilling your request within the 20-day time frame, we will notify you in writing about the delay.
How does the Privacy Act relate to the FOIA?
Under the Privacy Act, a person may seek access to records that are retrieved by that person's name or another personal identifier, such as social security number or date of birth. These records will be made available unless they fall within the exemptions of the Privacy Act or the FOIA. Generally, you cannot obtain copies of records concerning another person without the written permission of that person.
Sample FOIA Request Letter
Freedom of Information Act Officer
USDA, Food Safety and Inspection Service
Room 1140-South Building
1400 Independence Ave., SW
Washington, DC 20250
Dear FOIA Officer:
Under the Freedom of Information Act, I am requesting access to [identify the records as clearly and specifically as possible including the time period applicable to the records you seek, i.e., 1 month, 2 years, etc.]. [Specify if you are a commercial requester, are representing an educational institution or a noncommercial scientific institution, are a member of the news media or a public interest group, or other.]
If there are any fees charged for searching, reviewing, or copying the records, please supply the records without informing me of the cost if the fees do not exceed $_____, which I agree to pay. If the fees exceed this amount, please let me know prior to fulfilling my request.
If you deny any part of this request, please cite each specific reason that you think justifies your refusal to release the information. Please notify me of appeal procedures available under the law.
If you have any questions processing this request, you may contact me at the following telephone number: [number].
For additional information, contact:
- Telephone: (202) 720-2109
- Fax: (202) 690-3023
- E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org