POLITICO: GAO: USDA must do more to keep checkoffs in check

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POLITICO
By Jenny Hopkinson

The Government Accountability Office has called on USDA to increase oversight of the 22 federal agricultural research and promotion programs, known as checkoffs, while noting that some progress has been made following a critical report from the department’s Inspector General.

In a report issued today, GAO found that the Agricultural Marketing Service’s oversight of checkoffs remains inconsistent, despite the recent improvements, which include AMS establishing standard operating procedures for checkoff oversight and conducting internal reviews of oversight efforts. Both were recommendations the Office of the Inspector General made in a 2012 report.

GAO found USDA does not routinely review checkoff program subcontracts. In a sample of eight checkoffs examined, researchers found that AMS reviewed subcontracts for only one of the programs, impairing its ability to spot when funds are being misused.

In addition, GAO found that AMS failed to consistently document reviews of independent economic evaluations — reports that gauge a checkoff’s effectiveness and are legally required once every five years. GAO noted that AMS also does not ensure checkoff boards use program websites to share important documents like budget summaries and evaluations of program effectiveness. Only four of the eight programs analyzed by GAO posted all key documents.

USDA told GAO it was in general agreement with the report’s findings, according to GAO.

The report follows growing concern over checkoff spending. In 2015, documents obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request showed that the American Egg Board coordinated a media takedown of Hampton Creek, a company that makes egg-free mayonnaise, sparking concerns from lawmakers. More recently, USDA came under fire for failing for more than four years to publish legally required annual financial reports on the $400 million dairy checkoff.

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