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.


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.

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 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.

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.


Anonymous said...

100% No Tracability! Pretty Awesome Arthur Keys! Kudos DOA!

suvalley said...

The processing plant was DOAs most crucial asset, the highest profile thing they managed, and which carried the the largest risk-to the public, to the state, and to every consumer.

To say that I am aghast at the incompetence, ignorance, and mismanagement while in State hands is an understatement. They are in complete noncompliance, no doubt. Legally, they remain in noncompliance. FSIS regulations clearly require them to maintain those records for three years.

But hey, it's DOA!

They don't need to know what they don't know. Riiiight? >sarcasm<

And I'm sure hoping that the new owners are well aware of these requirements, and have upgraded the business record keeping systems to reflect that necessity. Actually, I am positive that they are, no doubts. They've made a large investment, have spent, and are spending lots of money on upgrades on the plant itself. No way the antiquated, hand written way of doing business would suffice.

Anonymous said...

Why does the State need to keep Federal records? You've asked twice and been told twice the USDA is the keeper of those records.

Anonymous said...

I call BS on there response as they have three copies to the check in slip they use as there "Pen Card" the white copy goes with the producer the pink with the USDA and the yellow to the DOA do I would appeal that decision and ask for there copy if I really wanted that for whatever reason the rabbit I was chasing needed to be run a little farther up the trial!

Anonymous said...

^ in response to above comment:
the blog author has already clearly stated why the state needed to keep these Federal records. (Hint: it helps to read the article before you comment).
This was a state owned & operated Div Ag establishment. As was stated above,

"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))."

That's pretty clear language, or should be, even for the (clearly challenged) Administrative staff at Div Ag. Pretty clear too, sadly, that Div Ag feels it is immune from operating under ANY kind of rules or oversight, as long as director Keyes has the Governor as bamboozled as he appears to. How long will all these (many, many) abuses of power be allowed to continue ?

suvalley said...

The staff at DOA already said in response, that they "only keep records" for a few days. I will copy paste the exact text next. Just allow a few moments to locate the correct pdf and upload to the comments here.........

suvalley said...

Whoops, everything they send is in read-only pdf files. If you don't have the correct programs (which I do not) then converting to anything that is easy to copy and paste is tedious at best.

Simply click the last link, and read the denial Lora H is authorized to give.

BTW, I do stand corrected: It was *not* DOA who only keeps records "for a few days". That is what the DOA says that they were told, when contacting USDA.

Won't even go there on that!

Anonymous said...

I still call BS Jim entered each ticket into the computer system every day! So they do have that information it may not be the exact "Pen Card" but they do have the information either in computer documents which is "Trade Secret" information or a computer generated spread sheet! Appeal that decision!

Anderson.john118 said...

Because it's the law?....

suvalley said...

The information I was asking for, in no way could be described as a "trade secret".

I did not ask for any identifiers other than tags/brands, and normal ante mortem notes as described above. So, if Jim entered them into a computer database, and the DOA kept the yellow copies (as described above) why was the FOIA record request denied?

They can't possibly say that they are unable to redact producer information.

Even I, who does not have a college degree, nor specialized training in word processing, could figure out how to black out names and addresses in any doc, docx, pdf, spreadsheet, you name it.

It's called "copy and edit". And if that doesn't work, there's Google.

Good grief, what the heck is going on here?

Looks like I have a letter to compose for administrative appeal.......

Anonymous said...

So much to say but I won't because I have to work with these people.

suvalley said...

^^^^ And that is how they get away with it all :(

....back to composing that blasted appeal.........

Anonymous said...

Sad that so many employees (and others) are afraid to speak out about the corruption at DoA. Instead, it sounds like they just leave the agency in disgust, and the abuses are allowed to go on, and on, and on, and on. I heard they've lost at least a few more employees in just the last weeks/months (again!). Or maybe they fire them if they dare to speak out - that might explain a lot.

State Administration and legislators, I know several of you who read this blog. What in the world is preventing you from doing something about this agency and its festering, corrupt culture and staff? They waste untold amounts of money in unnecessary programs, excessive travel, duplication of services done by other agencies, and full time positions that seem to have little or nothing to do aside from trying to prove the "need" for the agency and its continued funding when the beans are counted. All smoke and mirrors. Who is going to be brave enough to look behind the curtain? Especially now, when our state is badly hurting for money, other valuable state employees are on layoff notice, and we in the Ag Community are being threatened with taxes to support this charade. This problem agency should have been disbanded/cleaned up 30 years ago. So shameful.

Anonymous said...

The Governor obviously lives under a rock or is a complete idiot! Almost everything Arthur Keys has said is a lie and has done nothing for Agriculture except for photo opts and covering up for Alaska elite producers. T.J I hope and pray you get what you're asking for where you can take this to the U.S.Government where they can take up the fight against the DOA and expose the corruption once and for all. Thank you for pursuing this matter.