New Lawsuit Seeks Records of Agribusiness Influence on USDA School Nutrition Standards

A year and a half after the Department of Agriculture lowered nutritional standards for meals provided to school children, American Oversight is suing the agency to force the release of documents that might reveal industry influence over the decision

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced in May 2017 that his department would scale back Obama-era nutritional standards by allowing schools to serve 1% flavored milk (instead of just non-fat flavored milk) and by relaxing requirements for more whole grains and less sodium. American Oversight filed a Freedom of Information Act request last November for records of communications about the rule change that USDA political appointees had with representatives of major food industry players like PepsiCo, Conagra, or the School Nutrition Association, which has for years sought to roll back the nutrition requirements.

More than six months later, the department has failed to release the requested documents, prompting American Oversight’s lawsuit on Thursday. The complaint comes just two weeks after Perdue and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced who would be serving on the 20-member Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which reviews nutrition science and offers recommendations for the official U.S. dietary guidelines that are set to be updated in 2020. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the new committee “appears to be more heavily industry-influenced than usual, with members connected to the meat, infant formula, and soda industries.”

Concern about industry influence at the Department of Agriculture flared up in late 2017 when an investigation by The New York Times and ProPublica uncovered records that revealed USDA official Rebeckah Adcock, a former lobbyist for CropLife America, had met with the pesticide industry trade group in possible violation of her signed ethics agreement, which barred her from working on issues related to her former employer.

That week, Adcock testified before the House Oversight and Reform Committee, and Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman sent a letter demanding that Adcock release all emails she had exchanged with CropLife or other industry representatives. In August 2018, American Oversight sent FOIA requests to the Department of Agriculture for those same communications and has so far not received those records — these requests are also included in Thursday’s lawsuit.

See the complaint below:

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