Sunday, June 25, 2017

Alaska Ag......The Appeal

From:

Tiani Heider
7479 W Born Lazy
Wasilla, Alaska  99623

To:

State of Alaska
Division of Agriculture
Central Office
Director Arthur Keyes
1800 Glenn Highway, Suite 12
Palmer, Alaska  99645



Subject: Administrative Appeal
  2 AAC 96.340. Appeal from denial: manner of making


Director Keyes-

Per the statute referenced above, I am appealing the Freedom of Information Act denial I received on June 20th, 2017, regarding DAG 17-028 Public Records Request.

The denial was authored by
Lora Haralson
Administrative Officer I
Division of Agriculture
Central Office
1800 Glenn Highway, Suite 12
Palmer, Alaska 99645

The records requested were originally described as “copies of USDA pen cards, or similar”. During a follow up communication, a further description was provided to the Division.

It has since come to my attention, that the Division does, indeed, have both hard copies, and computer files for these documents. MMM&S called them “check in” cards, and the Plant Manager (among others) filled them out as animals arrived at MMM&S. One copy went to the producer, one to the USDA, and one to the Division of Agriculture. In addition, this information was entered into a computer on a daily basis during normal operations.

Pg.2




These records are federally mandated to be retained, under FSIS and HAACP regulations. For the HAACP that the Division has on file, records are required under 9 CFR 417.5 - Records.  (and others, for HAACP)  as well as FSIS 9 CFR 310.2 (a) and related regulations. All of these regulations specifying required compliance for record keeping can be found online at the related agency, or in the Federal Register..


I remain confident that the Division does, in fact, have these documents in their possession.  Since the data I requested did not include any specific personal producer information whatsoever, I am certain that my FOIA request was wrongfully denied.



Respectfully-













CC: Andrew T. Mack, Commissioner, DNR
        Ed Fogels, Deputy Commissioner, DNR
     

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Alaska Ag.....A FOIA Request


As blog readers here know, I made a FOIA request to the DOA personally, back on May 25th.

I asked for very simple data: What are the real numbers of USDA inspected cattle and hogs being processed at MMM&S?

This is a question that high school and college students might ask, or a reporter, or someone doing their homework before deciding to make an investment in livestock here in Alaska. It is back ground, legwork information that would either prove, or disprove, that the sector was growing as fast as it appears to be from the outside looking in. (After all, raising for yourself is one thing, but raising for market is another matter entirely)  

Naturally, I had to do a little research to determine which data would be relevant and accurate. I did not ask for, nor want, any personal identifiers of any kind.  But what records would be available to fulfill this request?  In a few short minutes online, I discovered the correct descriptor. 

Here is a copy and paste of the original FOIA request, submitted May 25th, 2017:

Good morning Lora-

I am requesting copies of all USDA pen cards generated for Mt. McKinley Meat & Sausage for the period between May 20th, 2016, through May 15th, 2017.

Scans via return email are acceptable, in the interest of time and cost savings to the State, during this period of fiscal crisis. 

Thank you for your time and attention in this matter.

Regards;

To which the response came:

Greetings:  I have received your FOIA records request DAG17-027 and will begin the request on May 26, 2017 with an anticipated response back to you on June 9, 2017. 

Thank you for your inquiry.

And another email arrived on May 31st:


Good morning, TJ

After returning to your public records request, it is unclear what documents you are seeking.  Please clarify what you mean by “USDA pen cards generated for Mt. McKinley Meat & Sausage.”  The time limits for response quoted to you in the last email will not begin to run again until we received your clarification.

Thank you.
Lora

To which I responded:



Lora, my apologies if my request was unclear. 

These are the charts/sheets generated for each USDA inspection performed at Mt. McKinley Meat & Sausage. They do not list owner or anything of a personal nature...it is simply age, sex, breed, ear tag and/or brand of the cattle (or hogs) slaughtered that day. 

The USDA requires them, and it is my understanding that the state would naturally have copies due to tracing responsibility (if it should be required for health reasons)  The USDA calls them "pen cards" but of course, you may know them by another term I am unfamiliar with. As custodian of the records for MMM&S and all it's activities, I am positive the Division does keep these important documents. 

Again, the period would be from May 20th, 2016, through May 17th, 2017

Thank you once again-


And then, the final response on this request:


Greetings Ms. Heider:

Attached is a response letter and denial regulations regarding your public records request dated May 31, 2017.

Thank you.
Lora
______________________________________________________________________




The links above close the FOIA, and provide the information to remedy the decision if a person chooses to continue forward.

However, my research proved that the DOA must have them, although the issue may have been their understanding of my request. I sent the following on June 7th:

Lora -

In the interest of clarity, I have started a new email chain regarding my original FOIA request, dated May 25th, 2017. I am hereby amending this to a new request at this time.

In reviewing the FSIS regulations to ascertain whether or not the Division of Agriculture would retain the relevant documents I described, I found this:

"The establishment is required to have an adequate system for the identification of animals presented for slaughter (307.2(a)). There is not a uniform method of presenting animals for ante-mortem inspection, but the establishment needs to do so in a manner that will allow IPP to document that ante-mortem inspection has been performed. The most commonly used way for establishments to meet this regulatory requirement is by using establishment identification cards, referred to as "pen cards" or "drive sheets”. Although the pen cards themselves are non-regulatory in nature, they must be presented to the inspector before ante-mortem inspection is performed. The pen card or drive sheet should contain space to record the date and time of inspection, pen or lot number, number and slaughter class of animals presented, and IPP signature or initials. In most instances, the establishment will record the information directly on the card for you. However, you should check to see that the information is correct. 

The regulations also require that establishments identify the carcass and parts with the animal from which they come (9 CFR 310.2 (a)), and that the establishment maintain records of the buyer and seller of livestock (9 CFR 320.1(b)(1)(iv)). Tags are typically used to maintain the identity of the carcass and its parts. Pen cards may be used to maintain a record of the buyer and seller of the livestock."

To reiterate, I have not asked for specific owner information. I request copies of the tags (or pen cards  as described above) of those cattle and hogs processed for the period from May 15th, 2016, through May 17th, 2017.

As the Division of Agriculture is now the custodian of the commercial business records of the MMM&S facility, as conducted for the State of Alaska, these records are federally mandated and are in the Divisions' possession.

Thank you for your attention-

********

And there the matter rested, with one follow up email on Friday to check to make sure the request was received. 

Yesterday, the final response on this second FOIA arrived in my inbox, where the DOA decided to contact the feds on my behalf:



Yes, this very long entry has a few points. 

The first takeaway is this: The DOA seemingly does not keep federally mandated records. The DOA only keeps "pen cards" for a few days, not the required minimum three years. This is a monstrous public health issue, and warrants a thorough investigation. 

Why?  Because *if* there were disease or other health problem arising from meats processed there, there is no way for public health officials to trace its origin!  The record keeping there is atrocious, and I have seen screenshots of the nearly illegible handwritten lists that they produce. Not entered into an easily searched database with a corresponding file for identification.  

Now while you are thinking through the serious implications of that, let me close by stating the mantra:

They do it this way, because it's always been done this way.


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Alaska Ag....Caveat Emptor!

(This is going to inflame many, and for that reason, here is the quasi-legal disclaimer: This blog is opinion. Opinion is protected speech in America)


Caveat Emptor, more commonly known as "buyer beware", is what all Alaskan consumers should be taking into consideration as they make their #alaskagrown purchases. 

Several times here, and in the comments following, this blog has pointed out the false advertising, misrepresentation, and outright frauds being perpetrated against us all. Naturally, the shills trot right out to shout down the truth....but there's this screenshot....shared by a fellow blog follower:



The above screenshot was taken June 10th from the Facebook page of the business. 


Why should this concern you?  

The only cattle processed at MMM&S in the past three weeks were direct-from-Canada imports. 

Confirmation on MMM&S processing comes from a very reliable source.

So, either this beef magically appeared processed with USDA stamp, or someone is flat out misrepresenting the above as (hashtag) alaskagrown, or it is not freshly aged. 

You be the judge here....after all, you are the consumer.








Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Alaska Ag......The Information Gateway is Locked



In the repository of Alaskan agriculture information masquerading as the DOA, you might be quite surprised to discover that much information might as well be inside the Ft. Knox vault.

Want statistics that are not published as part of a program directive?  That takes a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request.

Want details on what the DOA is actually doing?  See above.

Wondering where the Dear Director has been, and how much it cost us?  See above.

Have questions about the DOA's activities and staffing? See above.

Curious about livestock processed at MMM&S? See above.

And about those "FOIA" requests......

Every inquiry is run past the law department before compliance, because...well, it is the DOA after all, and all must be (mostly) approved by higher ups.

If they are confused or stalling, a week or so will pass, and they'll respond with a plea for more specific information...in which case, the clock is reset on their response allowance of two weeks. Or, they'll tell you that it will take more than your allotted 5.5 hours of time (per month) to look up the information (which they have in their databases and files) so it will cost you xx amount-which works out to about $58 per hour of their time. They'll restart your clock when you've paid in full and thank you very much for this opportunity to be of service.  >sarcasm<

It's not clear when a staffer was anointed, but at least one has been "delegated the authority to deny Alaska Public Records requests".  It would take a FOIA to find out who granted that power and if they had the authority to do so, but it's the DOA, after all, the information vacuum of the State. So, whatever your inquiry, there is now the added threshold of this persons' opinion on your request, and then it is passed along to DNR, and the Law Department.

The newest excuse, carefully prepped by the endless resources of the Dept of Law, is "trade secrets", not the more common "no such documents exist".   Each denial response letter will contain the relevant Alaska statute number, and include a legal case reference pertaining to that statute. It will also include instructions on how to appeal their decision. In fact, the DOA relies on the Law Department so much, it's a mystery why they don't have an attorney on staff themselves.

If you should be so careless as to mention specific community members in your FOIA, rest assured that the DOA will let them know you asked, and for what. There is nothing confidential about any contact you make with them yourself, an important distinction to remember. Confidentiality extends only to the CBC of Ag, and whatever the DOA does, so it seems. This is a one way information highway, in practical terms.  

Because no general guide apparently exists that describe what records are to remain legitimately, legally private, every FOIA request submitted is literally a shot in the dark.  They will refuse, when they could easily redact identifying information (if that is the concern) and perform the public service they are paid to perform.

As gatekeepers of Alaska agricultural information, they appear to be diligently working to assure that their employers (that would be us) cannot find out what the heck they are doing, if there are any measurable results for their programs and activities-yet gossip freely about farmers, ranchers, others in the community-up to and including details on those who have loans with the ARLF. These are not banking, personnel, human resources, adoption, SSNs, and assorted records we're talking about here. No, this is information that the DOA has in its possession, concerning its activities and programs and the business it conducts.

It is a strange juxtaposition of closely guarded information that the DOA endeavors to keep secret, and a public persona of bright, shiny optimism, spouting nonsensical gibberish when spotlighted. (Such as the fairy tales Dear Director told the 30th Alaska state legislature)

Why should it be so difficult to get information from a state agency?

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Alaska Ag.....Is that Alaska Grown?

We've all likely seen the label -

But what, exactly, does it mean?

Fierce defenders, those producers who bust butt to grow or raise food here in state, believe it means wholly grown or raised here, period. Basically from birth to butcher, germination to harvest, no wiggle room allowed. 

Other folks?  Well, not so much. Even Dear Director (of the DOA) has waffled on what qualifies as Alaska Grown. 

When it comes to branding and marketing, AlaskaGrown has a certain panache, a certain expectation that surrounds the concept and the bright yellow, blue and green logo. Proudly worn by those born here, and sported by fans and tourists who visit, it is an unmistakable symbol of Alaska agriculture.

That marketing gets marginalized and blurred, when this happens:

 (We'll take four dozen of the Alaska hardy pineapple plants, please!)

Or the signage in your local grocery store does not reflect what's actually on the shelf, or the produce cannot be found at all, or you're wondering at the very large images of your competitor, proudly beaming down from on high...and fuming about how they were chosen, and you (and your farm) were not.

Or worse...the packaging can be misleading, as well as the terms used to describe the package contents.  In theory, to qualify for AlaskaGrown, an animal must spend at least 51% of its life here in Alaska.  This applies to vegetables imported as seedlings as well.

A large number of food producers (of all types) don't bother with the AlaskaGrown designation. It is a relatively inexpensive branding to acquire, but the programs' history is sketchy and memories are long in Alaska agriculture. Others prefer to create their own brands and labels for marketing, not replying on the common denominator concept for local advertising and promotions. Alaskan producers are just as independent as any other group here, and some want to build their own identity, without the checkered auspices that the logo represents.

Yet an incident whereby the Director of the DOA, acquiesced that imported vegetables could be sold as AlaskaGrown, if it spent any time at all in Alaska dirt....leaves residents and consumers alike wondering just how AlaskaGrown their purchases truly are. As usual, the DOA spreads more confusion and distrust with the following:

Not one to miss an opportunity to re-plow harrowed ground, the DOA has jumped on a related platform they're calling a "Livestock Certification/Quality Assurance Program"   There are already national programs, so it can safely be presumed that the DOA has sniffed out grant money/federal funds to reinvent the wheel for Alaskan farmers and ranchers. Since more programs=more money=more staff=more important DOA, you can be sure that this will be created and launched regardless of need or impact. Are Alaskan cattle and hog producers going to jump happily into this new program that the DOA will provide for their assistance?  Perhaps a few, but most are too busy building their businesses, fighting bureaucracy, and struggling to cover expenses, to pay attention to whatever it is they're blathering about in Palmer.

When it comes to "truth in advertising", Alaska is a wide open field of possibilities. The AlaskaGrown program, for all its purported benefits, is not necessary for marketing.  Those that would deliberately mislead the consumer, are easily caught out for their actions, thanks in no small part to the tiny population and the rise in social media.  That there is no standard for cattle and hogs processed here should come as no surprise to anyone.  Thankfully, Alaska remains small enough that if you have questions, you can always just call the farm or ranch yourself, and ask.







Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Alaska Ag......The USDA stamp shakeout


(The USDA "stamp" is a euphemism for acquiring all the approvals and following all protocols necessary-including inspection-to sell cuts of meat to retail and commercial customers. This differs from custom exempt, whereby the consumer purchases a live animal and butchers themselves for their own use)

In the muddled mess that is meat production in Alaska, nothing exemplifies the pitfalls as well as the history of MMM&S.

Long on the books as an asset of the BAC, and managed by the DOA, it constantly lost money, except for one year when they sold a load of hides. Under the auspices of the DOA, the plant deteriorated and the business conducted there was.....marginal for some producers. When the calls arose for privatization several years back, the BAC was forced to put it up for bid. This caused some fractions within the farming community, and the BAC (wearing their CBC of Ag hats for all to see), accepted a bid well below appraised value.

Last week, the plant was formally handed over to the new owner.  There's no assurance of success (the plant has failed in private hands before, necessitating State intervention to keep this crucial asset functioning) but there is hope that having a producer in charge of operations will succeed where others have not. Volumes have been written about the inefficiencies of government to run business, so there is no need to repeat what is well known. However, the new owner is investing in our community by making improvements, performing needed upgrades, and so on. This allows the small producers some small measure of optimism for the future.....except that:

The new owner has applied and received a direct to slaughter import permit. This allows the new management to import cattle from Canada, direct to the plant in Palmer. They have 14 days from arrival to process those cattle, who most assuredly are not Alaska grown, raised, or pastured. Just how this will effect scheduling at the plant for the community, remains to be seen.

Two weeks ago, another USDA stamp processing facility began operations. The BAC and the DOA management are directly responsible for its creation. (The long, sordid story of how the BAC turned down a near-asking price from this new facility owner is again, the CBC of Alaska Ag picking winners and losers in the tiny club that is Alaska agriculture.)  This new facility is not open to the public, will be processing both local and imported cattle and hogs, and is pursuing specific markets.  Whether they open to other producers in the future remains to be seen-but here again, there is a proven professional businessman at the helm. The majority of cattle processed here will be what might be called "Alaska Finished", that is, the cattle spending several months at Pt MacKenzie before processing.

Also reportedly in the works, yet another USDA facility for processing. This one supposedly involves the Denali Meats principals. Having the sole processing plant for Southcentral in the hands of a direct competitor was likely more risk than they felt ready to assume-and thus, their remedy was another plant. It is unknown if this facility would process for the public, but considering the rumored location, it is unlikely.

The water is already muddled when it comes to market branding, and the direct-to-slaughter import matter further roils the situation. The "Alaska Grown" program has specific conditions, but there is no enforcement if a consumer is somehow lead astray with advertising. There have already been several incidents where meats were marketed wrongly-with no penalty for the CBC of Alaska Ag players.

In the end, the decisions and actions of the CBC of Alaska Ag, have served to accidentally spur the growth of the protein sector, not stifle competition for MMM&S.

It's a sector long overlooked in the patchwork of improving Alaska food security.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Alaska Ag....A win, a loss, and a draw



In the card game that is Alaska agriculture, most players understand that they are literally playing against a stacked deck. Most of those have been covered here in previous entries, explaining the challenges facing our local farmers and ranchers, and everyone else attempting to produce food in Alaska.


In the win category, the MMM&S facility formally changed hands. Not without its last minute drama, we're told, but it did indeed close. This is a big win for Mike's Quality Meats of Eagle River.  The BAC, in their wisdom, turned down two nearly full price offers, to accept MQMs fire sale bid in the end. Thus, the problematic plant is off the BAC's books, and no longer under Director Keyes management. 

In the loss column, comes word that Northern Lights Dairy is closing. This will leave one remaining dairy in the entire state: Havemeister's in Palmer. The owners of Northern Lights Dairy can't find help, nor anyone to run it. Director Keyes' comments are pathetically without compassion or comprehension. You can read them yourself with a little digging on the matter.  Keep in mind that just a few decades ago, dozens of dairies were operating across the state. Yes, dozens.

And a draw is discovered when news arises that not one, but two, mobile slaughter plants are in the works. One is already operating with USDA stamp in the Pt. MacKenzie area, and the other will be located a bit north, near Sutton. These developments are a direct result of the DOA's management of MMM&S, and the sale of the plant into private hands.

Continuing the poker allegory.....it seems certain that several jokers are yet to be played, on this tiny stage called Alaska agriculture.  Of course, playing with the CBC of Ag is a high stakes game, pitting lives, fortunes, and livelihoods against the entrenched corruption that seems at ease with food security numbers that give others nightmares.