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Freedom of Information Act


I. Introduction

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. 1

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.

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 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:; 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 information.
USDA maintains a FOIA home page at: 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. 2

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:

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.

VII. Fees

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 of photocopies.
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 (3) exclusions

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.

IX. Appeals

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.

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