[UPDATE: With your support, we delivered our petition with ~25,000 of your signatures to support the reform of checkoff programs! You can continue to put pressure on lawmakers by visiting this link.]
You’ve probably seen us posting a lot lately about our recent petition to stop government-overseen organizations from standing in the way of more sustainable food solutions.
So, what’s actually going on here? And how does this fit into The Good Food Institute’s mission?
Well, take a seat around the campfire and I’ll tell you a scary story.
First, you should know about the farm promotion programs known as “checkoffs.” Checkoff dollars are collected from producers of certain agricultural commodities to generically promote those commodities. These are the programs responsible for creating some of America’s best-known advertising campaigns, including “Pork. The Other White Meat,” “Got Milk?” and “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner.”
The USDA is responsible for overseeing these programs and making sure checkoff boards don’t use their significant funds to do anything but promote their commodities. Oversight, however, has been questionable at best.
While there are checkoffs for all sorts of commodities from mushrooms to watermelons, the boards associated with animal agriculture have most frequently been caught stepping over the line.
For instance, a 2010 audit of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board revealed that the organization was funneling the majority of its funds—$51 million of the $77 million collected under the program that year, mainly from ranchers—to a separate organization with one of the most powerful beef lobbying arms in the nation. Unexpectedly, this group (similarly named the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, or NCBA) used these funds to support its lobbying efforts—efforts that promote putting red meat at the center of the plate with no concern for its public health and environmental consequences.
A financial review of the activities concluded that the cattlemen’s association had “breached the firewall” between marketing and lobbying, but the checkoff board was only required to return $20,000, a paltry amount when the total amount in questionable transactions was listed as at least $90,000.
The National Pork Board also has a history of shady dealings, paying $60 million in checkoff funds to the National Pork Producers Council under the guise of “buying back” the trademark for an ad campaign it had given away to the council for free years prior. The council is a trade association that defends the use (and overuse) of antibiotics, lifelong confinement of pigs in extremely small cages, and other inhumane and unhealthy policies that keep our food system from moving forward to a more sustainable future.
Most recently, there’s the American Egg Board’s attacks on Hampton Creek. While other checkoffs have clearly used their deep pockets to make it difficult for any competition or reform to get a foothold, the American Egg Board took it to the next level by directly attacking the producer of egg-free Just Mayo. These efforts started with invoking archaic labelling laws and went as far as making “jokes” about assassinating Josh Tetrick, Hampton Creek’s founder.
Clearly, this is not OK. But at this point, it appears that the USDA is still just trying to avoid real accountability by refusing to release any more documents about the case that might further incriminate the American Egg Board. That’s the reason we’re suing the USDA.
I could give more details, but I can tell your blog-reading attention span is waning, so here’s the kicker:
Two senators, Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Mike Lee (R-UT), have recognized the need for checkoff reform, transparency, and accountability.
As a result, they’ve proposed the Commodity Checkoff Improvement Act of 2016 (S.3201, to be exact).
While the reforms proposed are modest, they are absolutely critical for ensuring that animal agriculture checkoffs don’t continue to use farmers’ money to keep the nation entrenched in a broken food system by lobbying for regressive policies and attacking competitors who are fighting for a better food future.
Some of the proposed reforms include prohibiting checkoff boards from contracting with any organization that lobbies on agricultural policy and prohibiting them from engaging in anticompetitive activity, unfair or deceptive acts or practices, or any act that may be disparaging to another agricultural commodity or product.
Please join us in supporting this bill and ending the unchecked power of checkoffs. Sign our petition to add your voice to the movement toward a more humane, sustainable, and healthy food supply.
Once we have collected enough signatures, we will be sending a letter to the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee asking them to co-sponsor the Commodity Checkoff bill to ensure it gets passed into law.
To learn more about how GFI is making this future possible, visit our website.