Somewhere along the way, state Department of Agriculture officials forgot whose names were, figuratively speaking, on their paychecks. Those names belong to the taxpayers, who rightfully expect Agriculture officials, and all other public workers, to conduct the people's business openly and without favor to special interest groups.
So how come the department denies access to potentially important information on hog farms to a fellow state agency and to members of the public?
That's not a rhetorical question. The plain answer is: Information is restricted because the big hog farmers want it that way. They're afraid, apparently, that too much information in the hands of the right people might somehow bring them more-gasp-regulation.
State agriculture folks go along because they have this peculiar idea, as reported in The News & Observer's "Boss Hog" series, that their first responsibility is to pork producers, not to the taxpayers.
What happened is that the Agriculture Department successfully worked to get a law passed that stopped a state environmental agency, the Department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources, from getting Agriculture's data on where hogs and their waste are concentrated in the state. One DEHNR official rightly justified her need for information: "We managed human waste," Lisa Huff said. "It's time we started managing animal waste."
Agriculture officials claimed they needed a law on records to allow them to release information, but in effect they tricked the General Assembly. For they've used that very law to limit what they give out-even to other public agencies, because it also gave them the right to withhold farm records except in very narrow circumstances. The state veterinarian's office even says that medical records on hogs should be confidential.
That's absurd, of course, but hog industry bigwigs want to protect themselves from having too much known about how they do business. That rightly raises public suspicions-something the Agriculture Department ought to want to avoid. And in the case of DEHNR, it cost the taxpayers another $100,000, because that agency had to get its own data, even though Agriculture already had some of it.
It's time for Agriculture officials to rid themselves of the notion that they work for the pork producers. And it's time for the legislature to repeal this law.
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