By Todd Neeley
DTN Staff Reporter
OMAHA (DTN) -- USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service violated the Freedom of Information Act by not responding to numerous requests for information from the Center for Food Safety on the agency's proposed regulation of genetically engineered crops, the group alleges in a lawsuit filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
In the lawsuit, the CFS outlines a number of contacts the group made with APHIS following the filing of an information request on Dec. 3, 2014, all of which did not result in providing the information the group sought.
APHIS published a proposed update to GE regulations on Oct. 9, 2008, according to the lawsuit. A public comment followed, closing in 2009. The CFS said it filed the FOIA when learning in December 2014 that APHIS was going to withdraw the rule.
"APHIS took no further action on the proposed regulations until March 4, 2015," the lawsuit said. "On that date, the agency announced that, instead of completing or continuing the process of updating its GE regulations, it was suddenly withdrawing the proposed regulations entirely."
When contacted by DTN for comment, APHIS Director of Public Affairs Ed Curlett said the agency could not comment on pending litigation.
The lawsuit said APHIS allegedly didn't provide timely final response to the center's FOIA requests on at least 29 occasions.
Cristina Stella, staff attorney for the Center for Food Safety, said in a news release Tuesday that the information requested by the group is important to consumers.
"APHIS has a track record of irresponsible and inadequate regulation of GE crops," she said. "In the absence of thorough government oversight, public access to information about these crops becomes all the more critical. This lawsuit is necessary to stop APHIS from continuing to ignore its duty to provide the public with information that affects farmers, communities, and the environment.
"The longer APHIS fails to use its full authority to regulate the environmental and agricultural harms from GE crops, such as transgenic contamination of nearby crops, pesticide drift, and endangerment of protected species, the more these harms will occur."
In the lawsuit, the center said it sought records from APHIS related to the proposed GE regulation update. Time and again, the group said, it had followed the FOIA procedure, continued to contact APHIS personnel about the request, but to this day has not received the information requested.
"APHIS has violated FOIA by failing to respond to plaintiff's request within the statutorily prescribed time limit, failing to disclose the requested documents, and unlawfully withholding the requested information," the lawsuit alleges. "CFS now asks the court to order APHIS to respond to the request and produce all responsive agency records improperly withheld from CFS.
"APHIS regularly delays or withholds disclosure of information to which plaintiff is entitled and for which no valid disclosure exemption or unusual circumstances apply. APHIS has maintained an illegal pattern, practice, or policy of: 1) unreasonable delay in responding to plaintiff's FOIA requests; 2) failing to timely disclose requested documents; and 3) unlawfully withholding requested information."
The Center for Food Safety requested all documents related to the status "and/or progress of APHIS's proposed update of Plant Protection Act regulations ... This specifically includes any information related to APHIS's planned withdrawal of the proposed rule."
The group said in the lawsuit that the documents requested did not include submissions already made public.
"Plaintiff's access to non-exempt documents from APHIS concerning GE crops and their regulation is essential to plaintiff's mission and to the public's interest and right to know about the regulation of GE crops," the lawsuit said.
"Part of plaintiff's mission is to ensure that federal agencies with regulatory authority over aspects of food production, such as APHIS, comply with their statutory mandates and federal environmental laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. Plaintiff also seeks, with regard to GE foods, to ensure that federal agencies such as APHIS adequately protect public health and the environment by providing thorough premarket analysis of their risks and impacts."
Read the lawsuit here: http://tinyurl.com/…
Todd Neeley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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