Beef Checkoff Program: Promoting Beef or Funding Opposition to Producer Interests?

Thomas F. “Fred” Stokes, Executive Director

The Beef Promotion and Research Act of 1985 (commonly referred to as the beef checkoff program) was born through producer initiative and referendum. Initially all voluntary, the checkoff became mandatory with the subsequent Farm Bill. I was among those who strongly supported the creation of it and I worked hard to ensure the referendum passed.

Now, however, I believe the program has been hijacked by forces whose interests are not mine or yours.

Since 1985, the checkoff program has raised and spent some $2 billion of producer money on beef promotion and research. That’s a lot of money, but can it be said that you and me, we producers, have benefited from this massive effort?

That’s hard for the average producer to say so maybe we should rely on those involved in day-to-day checkoff business to comment. Here’s what Robert Fountain, Jr., the secretary/treasurer of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, the checkoff overseer, said in July about the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), for checkoff ’s prime  contractor for the last 14 years:

“An independent accounting firm tested charges from NCBA to the beef checkoff in five areas and found many expenses were either improperly charged to the checkoff or  insufficiently documented. For example, international and domestic travel expenses for the spouses of staff and volunteer leadership, consulting fees for the purpose of investigating a certified beef program for the policy division, travel performed for the  purpose of initiating an NCBA-member insurance program and time spent by employees in meetings related to non-checkoff revenue development were charged in full or in part to the checkoff.”

That’s not me saying this; that’s a checkoff official commenting on what a very cursory audit of recent checkoff spending by NCBA showed. Is this the tip of an iceberg?

To find out, an August 4th letter from the Organization for Competitive Markets and 28 other  organizations representing checkoff paying beef producers was sent to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and USDA Inspector General Phyllis Fong urging them to take decisive action against misuse of checkoff funds by NCBA. The letter asked for the:

• freezing of checkoff funds handled by NCBA;

• suspending NCBA as a program contractor;.

• conducting an investigation and audit;

• redressing violations, misuse or fraud and recovery of misappropriated funds; and

• separating NCBA from the Federation of State Beef Councils.

For decades I was a member of my state cattlemen’s organization and the various iterations of the national cattle organization–the ANCA, the NCA, the NCBA. A few years back, I dropped my membership in both state and national organizations because it became very evident that both actively opposed policy and market protections that favored you and me, the producers.

For example, NCBA vigorously opposed—and still opposes–Country of Origin Labeling(COOL) even though cattle producers overwhelmingly support it. How can an organization that fights against the belief of all cattlemen, COOL, be those same cattlemen’s $50 million a year contractor of the checkoff?

Also, NCBA’s shrill voice now leads the meatpacker chorus in opposition to the proposed GIPSA Rule which I see as an essential first step in reviving the Packers and Stockyards Act. By any fair measure, this rule is critical if independent farmers, ranchers and cattle feeders are to have a competitive marketplace in decades to come.

Does the checkoff ’s main contractor, NCBA, support the future of these hundreds of thousands of producers or does it, as it takes every producer’s checkoff money, support the meatpackers hatred of the proposal?

Again I ask: How can the NCBA, whose membership represents fewer than one producer out of every 33, speak for four giant, multinational meatpackers while working against the future of 700,000 cattle producers paying tens of millions of dollars in checkoff that NCBA benefits from?

One of our nation’s most revered Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, said that “To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.” I believe that’s so with NCBA and the checkoff: together they are working against cattlemen and our future.

OCM and its alliance of organizations and individuals again appeal to the Secretary of Agriculture and USDA’s Inspector General to take action on our earlier requests. Cattlemen everywhere deserve to know whether NCBA is working for itself and meatpackers or the people—you and me—who pay the checkoff without recourse or refund.FS


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