The U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), found in Title 5 of the United
States Code, section 552, was enacted in 1966. The Act permits any person
to request access to federal agency records or information. All federal
agencies are required to disclose records upon receiving a written request
for them, except for records protected from disclosure by the nine (9)
exemptions and three (3) exclusions in the Act. The citizen’s right
to access is enforceable in court. The federal FOIA does not furnish legal
access to records of state or local government agencies, or private businesses
or individuals. States have separate laws controlling public access to
state and local records.
This memorandum helps to understand specific procedures for making a FOIA
request to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Domina Law pc has
found FOIA requests helpful to obtain specific information about parties
regulated by USDA, program participants, and agency matters in many instances.
Well written FOIA requests are critical to useful responses.
No central office in the government processes FOIA requests for all federal
agencies. Each agency responds to requests for its own records. General
sources of information about how to make a FOIA request include:
"Your Right to Federal Records," available for $.50 per copy
from the Consumer Information Center, Department 319E, Pueblo, CO 81009.
This publication also can be accessed electronically at:
"A Citizen''s Guide on Using the Freedom of Information Act
and the Privacy Act of 1974 to Request Government Records." This
report is published by the Committee on Government Reform and Oversight
of the House of Representatives, available for $5.00 from the U.S. Government
Printing Office, stock number 052-071-01230-3. It also can be accessed
on the World Wide Web at:
Formal rules for making FOIA requests to USDA are sent forth in Title 7,
Part 1, Subpart A, of the Code of Federal Regulations.
II. Access to Certain Records Without a FOIA Request
Many agency records are already publicly available so no FOIA request is
necessary. Most can be accessed through the involved Agency’s website, within
www.firstgov.gov. Generally, these already available records include: (1) final opinions
and orders in adjudicated cases; (2) final statements of policy and interpretations
though not published in the Federal Register; (3) administrative staff
manuals and instructions to staff impacting the public; (4) copies of
records previously disclosed in a FOIA request and f sufficient public
interest or curiosity that the agency believes other are likely to request
them; and (5) the agency''s annual FOIA report to Congress. It
includes such information as the number of requests received, the amount
of time taken to process requests, total fees collected to do so, the
backlog of pending requests, and other information about handling FOIA requests.
USDA’s website can be accessed at:
http://www.usda.gov; it contains FOIA-related information. This site also includes a link
to the USDA''s Government Information Locator Service (GILS) site.
Each USDA agency maintains its own home page, with a variety of substantive
USDA maintains a FOIA home page at: http://www.usda.gov/news/foia/main.htm.
This site includes USDA''s annual report to Congress, various
reference materials, information on how to make a FOIA request, and copies
of the relevant statutes. This site provides links to agency reading rooms.
III. Where to Make a FOIA Request
USDA is organized into a number of agencies and offices. Each USDA agency
processes its own FOIA requests. Request will receive the quickest response
if addressed directly to the agency with the records sought. Functions
of each USDA agency are summarized in the
Agency Mission Area.
In most cases, one should send a FOIA request to an agency''s central
FOIA office. For records held by an agency field office, one must write
directly to that office.
General requests should be sent here when one is not certain of a specific
USDA agency to be asked for data:
USDA FOIA Officer
Office of Communications
Room 536-A, Jamie Whitten Bldg.
1400 Independence Avenue, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20250-1300
IV. How to Make a FOIA Request
A FOIA request can be made for any agency record. This does not mean USDA
will disclose any record sought. Statutory exemptions require withholding
sensitive information. When USDA withholds information, it must specify
which FOIA exemption it invokes to do so. . FOIA does not require agencies
to do research, analyze data, answer written questions, or create records
to respond to a request.
No special FOIA request form is required by USDA. Requests must be in writing.
Agency security measures must be satisfied as a prerequisite to FOIA request
processing. FOIA requests must be specific. Details about the date, time,
location, party involved, if possible program involved, are all important.
More specificity in the request makes a useful agency response more likely.
Under certain circumstances, one may receive more information under the
Privacy Act of 1974 (a separate federal statute) than under FOIA. Under
FOIA, anyone can request any agency record. Privacy Act requests are more
limited and can be made only by U.S. citizens or aliens lawfully admitted
for permanent U.S. residence, who are seeking information about themselves,
contained in a system of records maintained under their names or other
personal identifiers. USDA automatically treats requests as made under
both the FOIA
andthe Privacy Act whenever appropriate to do so.
V. Response Times
Federal agencies are required to respond to FOIA requests within twenty
(20) business days, excluding Saturdays, Sundays, and legal holidays.
This period does not begin until the request is actually received by the
FOIA office t maintains the records sought. An agency is not required
to send releasable documents by the 20th day; it can send word of its
decision and furnish the documents within a reasonable time.
An agency may extend the response time for ten (10) business days when:
(1) the agency needs to collect responsive records from field offices;
(2) the request involves a "voluminous" amount of records or
(3) the agency must consult another agency with a substantial interest
in the responsive material.
VI. Expedited Processing
Urgently needed material may be expedited. A request for expedited processing
must be accompanied by a statement setting forth the reasons the request
should be expedited.
There is no initial fee to file a FOIA request, but agencies are entitled
to charge certain fees of certain requestors. Commercial requesters may
be charged fees for searching, processing and photocopying. Educational
or noncommercial scientific institutions and representatives of the news
media are charged only for photocopying expenses, after the first 100 pages.
Requesters who do not fall into either of these two categories are not
charged for processing but are charged only for record searches and photocopying
after the first two hours of search time and after the first 100 pages
A request may state the limit of the fee the requesting party is willing to pay.
VIII. Initial Request Determinations
After an agency has processed a request and any fee issues have been resolved,
the agency sends a written initial determination. FOIA provides access
to all federal agency records (or portions of those records), except for
those records that are withheld under any of nine (9) exemptions or three
The exemptions authorize federal agencies to withhold information covering:
(1) classified national defense and foreign relations information; (2)
internal agency rules and practices; (3) information that is prohibited
from disclosure by another federal law; (4) trade secrets and other confidential
business information; (5) inter-agency or intra-agency communications
that are protected by legal privileges; (6) information involving matters
of personal privacy; (7) certain types of information compiled for law
enforcement purposes; (8) information relating to the supervision of financial
institutions; and (9) geological information on wells. The exclusions
pertain to especially sensitive law enforcement and national security matters.
Agency appeals may be taken, by writing an appeal letter, if a requester
is dissatisfied with an agency response. Again, no special form or appeal
language is required. Both the front of the envelope and the appeal letter
should contain the notation "Freedom of Information Act Appeal."
X. Judicial Review
After agency appeal is concluded a person dissatisfied with a FOIA request
response may challenge the agency''s action in federal court.
Generally, such a suit may be filed in any of these places: (1) where
the requester reside, (2) where the requestor has its principal place
of business (if any), (3) in the District of Columbia, or (4) where the
records are located, if they are not located in the District of Columbia.
A six (6) year statute of limitations governs the timing of suit. This
time begins to run when the right to sue accrues.