Checkoff, Check-mate — Part I


by Mayzie Purviance

In recent years, producers have questioned the Beef Checkoff program.  Is it worth it?  What are my dollars going toward?  Can you trust the individuals controlling the money?  In a two-part series both sides of the great checkoff debate will be aired.

To fully understand this checkoff chess game, it is important to first understand the players.  The Animal Wellness Action (AWA) and the Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM) question the integrity of the Checkoff program.

Animal Wellness Ties…

AWA’s mission is to help animals by promoting legal standards forbidding cruelty.

“We champion causes that alleviate the suffering of companion animals, farm animals, and wildlife.  We advocate for policies to stop dogfighting, cockfighting, horse soring, and other forms of malicious cruelty and confront factory farming, cosmetic testing, wildlife trafficking, and other systemic forms of animal exploitation,” AWA’s website reads.

AWA has been a part of many animal welfare campaigns, many of which pertain to wildlife, zoo animals, and pets — per their website.  AWA has a section on their campaigns page titled “Farm Animals,” which reads: “All animals deserve humane treatment, including animals raised for food.  How we treat farm animals matters.  Animals are at the center of so many agricultural operations, and they should therefore be at the center of our moral concern.”

AWA advocates for the Pigs in Gestation Stalls (PIGS) Act which bans the use of gestation crates for housing breeding pigs; the Opportunity in Family Farm Act (OFF) Act which would create a system of checks and balances, accountability, and transparency for “USDA’s runaway Commodity Check Programs;” and advocated for the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture (PACT) Act (see November 14, 2019 Western Ag Reporter front page to read more about the PACT Act in “The Devil is in the Details of PACT”).

AWA Executive Director Marty Irby recently penned an essay titled, “USDA’s Runaway Checkoffs Should Serve Family Farmer’s, Not Bankrupt Them.” In his story, Irby put all USDA checkoff programs under the microscope — not just the beef checkoff program.  Irby started off his comments with discussion of the dairy industry.

“It’s been a tough few years for family farmers in the dairy business, but most folks don’t really understand the root of the problem.  Big agriculture is sucking up the hard-earned dollars of family farmers and using those funds to lobby against the interests of the people it purports to represent.”

He continued, “to be precise, I am writing about big ag’s big secret — a series of USDA checkoff programs for beef, pork, dairy, and other commodities.  Major trade associations divert checkoff dollars that, by law, are restricted to commodity marketing programs and research and instead use a large share of the money for salaries, office operations, and lobbying.  And that means lobbying for policies that often hurt family farmers.”

Irby stated that there is optimism with the introduction of the 2020 OFF Act (H.R. 5563).

He said the OFF Act wouldn’t abolish checkoff programs as may be assumed.  Instead, it would create transparency and accountability and prohibit checkoff funds from being used for lobbying, staff salaries and programs of trade associations who “favor multi-national corporations and push small farmers out of business.”

Irby wrote that funds from checkoff programs benefit trade associations which promote “frightening levels of consolidation within agriculture, and that does nothing to help the family farmers forced to pay into the program.” He mentioned organizations that pushed to repeal Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) as well as organic labeling — two things Irby feels do more harm than good for family farmers.

In closing his essay, Irby ended with a quote from President Abraham Lincoln.

“The Agricultural Department, under the supervision of its present energetic and faithful head, is rapidly commending itself to the great and vital interest it was created to advance.  It is precisely the people’s Department, in which they feel more directly concerned than in any other.  I commend it to the continued attention and fostering care of Congress.”

Irby then added his final comment, “That’s clearly not the USDA we see today, and that’s clearly not the USDA that big ag wants in Washington.  If big ag fights against a simple hearing on the matter, it makes you wonder what the checkoffs have to hide.”

OCM’s Opinion…

Our next key player in this game is the OCM.  Based off previous comments made by the OCM, they’re not too keen on the checkoff program — however, according to OCM’s Executive Director Angela Huffman, “Like most cattle producers in America, it is not the beef checkoff program we oppose but how it is being operated.”

On May 14, 2018, the OCM released an online article titled “Top 10 Most Egregious Checkoff Program Abuses.” The beginning of the article stated that checkoff programs have been instrumental in the history of agriculture advertising and goes on to mention the “Beef.  It’s What’s for Dinner.” campaign.

“However,” the article continued, “checkoff programs have fallen under the control of big agribusiness interests, and often times the billions of dollars paid into checkoff programs by hard working family farmers and ranchers end up being used to lobby for policies that hurt them.”

This article also mentioned S. 741 (2017), aka S. 935 (2019), aka H.R. 5563 (2020) , aka the OFF Act.

OCM stated that in 2017, the U.S. Government Accountability Office called on the USDA to increase oversight of all 22 of the checkoff programs.

“It found that USDA does not routinely review checkoff program subcontracts, impairing its ability to spot when funds are being misused,” the article read.  “Further, GAO found that USDA does not ensure that certain documents, such as budget summaries and evaluations of effectiveness, are shared with stakeholders on program websites.  According to GAO, USDA agreed with these findings.”

The OCM went on to list out 10 “injustices” of checkoff programs — beginning in 1999 when the Office of the Inspector General found that the USDA had “relinquished too much authority to its primary contractor, the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), and has placed the NPPC in a position to exert undue influence over Board budgets and grant proposals.”

The article goes on to list several more perceived injustices and ends with, “According to the NCBA’s 2015 IRS Form 990, beef checkoff funds make up approximately 73 percent of the lobbying group’s total annual budget.  As much as 72 percent of the NCBA president’s nearly half a million dollar salary comes from beef checkoff funds.  NCBA membership accounts for less than 4 percent of cattle producers.”

Although this article may seem as if the OCM’s stance is anti-checkoff, Huffman stated that the OCM supports the beef checkoff.

“What we don’t support is the way it is currently being administered,” Huffman said.  “We want the beef checkoff program to be transparent, accountable, and out of the hands of lobbying organizations like the NCBA.”

However, OCM’s beef with the checkoff began far earlier than present day.  In 2014, the OCM began a long, rigorous lawsuit against the USDA over USDA’s refusal to release public audit and financial documents related to Beef Checkoff Program spending.  This feud began in 2013 when the OCM filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOAI) to reveal the activities and spending of the federal Beef Checkoff Program “following multiple troubling program audits.”
According to the OCM website, attorneys for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) provided pro-bono legal representation in this case in furtherance of their work to reform the Beef Checkoff Program.

The Conspiracy Of It All…

In recent months, the question, “Why would an animal welfare organization want to help the beef industry?” has been on the minds of many producers regarding the bedfellows of the OCM (HSUS and the AWA).

AWA’s Irby revealed that he personally eats a 10 oz. New York Strip steak every Sunday night.

“What I think is important, beyond animal welfare, is that farmers are being put out of business and they want to know where their dollars are going.  Those dollars are supposed to be going to promote their products,” Irby said.  “What the OFF Act does is open up the books to the public and create a system of checks and balances for accounting, accountability, and transparency — and it does not take one dollar away from the checkoffs which is a misconception that many other organizations have put out there.  So, if there’s nothing to hide, why do they have a problem with that?”

Editor’s Note: During the NCBA Convention last week, I was able to meet with 2020 CBB Chairman Jared Brackett who provided comments on checkoff spending.  Next week, you’ll be presented with the other side to this argument.  Also, check out last week’s top front-page story “Just One More Step in the Process” by Editor Kayla Sargent to read about R-CALF USA’s Checkoff Lawsuit which goes hand in hand with this article. MP

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