Checkoff Programs and the Marketplace
Under federal law, farmers of certain commodities (including pork, eggs, beef, and corn) are required to pay a portion of their sales into checkoff programs. These mandatory fees are intended to be used by the U.S. government to research and promote demand for those products. Well-known examples of past checkoff-funded advertising campaigns are “Pork. The Other White Meat,” “The Incredible, Edible Egg,” and “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner.” Checkoff programs collect tens of millions of dollars from America’s farmers and ranchers every year. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that checkoff activities and speech are those of the federal government.
Unfortunately, through questionable if not illegal ways, these tax dollars often wind up in the pockets of industrialized agriculture trade and lobbying organizations. Ironically, while independent family farmers and ranchers pay into these funds, the influence it buys industrialized agriculture trade groups and the corporations they represent is used to support policies that work against the family farmers and ranchers who pay into the checkoff.
A Prime Example: NCBA’s Corrupt Influence
In the case of the beef industry, cattle producers are required to pay a tax of $1 into the checkoff program for each head of cattle they sell. The U.S. government contracts with the beef industry’s largest trade association, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), to administer these funds and carry out the beef checkoff advertising efforts.
To maintain industrialized agriculture’s lock on the marketplace and their unjust share of the retail price of agriculture goods, lobbying organizations such as NCBA expend an excessive amount of monetary resources to gain influence to push for government programs that support their continued control of the marketplace. Checkoff funds are one of their major sources of funding.
Up to 80% of NCBA’s budget is comprised of checkoff dollars, and it uses those funds to build its influence to push anti-independent family farm policy, all the while claiming it is the voice of U.S. cattle producers (NCBA claims membership of only 4% of U.S. cattle producers). NCBA used its ill-gotten influence to end mandatory Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) and to hinder GIPSA rules that would protect contract farmers and end predatory market practices. This is a clear conflict of interest that is prohibited by law. Since the NCBA has been administering the lion’s share of the beef checkoff funds, the U.S. has lost nearly half of its cattle producers, beef consumption has declined by 30%, and the four largest meatpacking corporations control 82% of the market.
Our Work: A Three-Pronged Strategy
In 2010, an audit of the equivalent of just nine days of beef checkoff program spending found more than $200,000 in improper spending by NCBA, including the use of tax dollars for lobbying and overseas vacations. USDA then performed a full audit of the program but did not release it to the public, claiming it would cause embarrassment for USDA and cause fracturing of the beef industry if the details were made public. We have been fighting the USDA in federal court over a Freedom of Information Act request since 2014 to see the spending details of these federal tax dollars. Click here to get the details on our lawsuit.
We have worked with members of Congress to introduce legislation in both the U.S. House and Senate that would reform the federal checkoff programs. The Opportunities for Fairness in Farming (OFF) Act, S. 741 & H.R. 1753, would prohibit lobbying, rein in conflicts of interest, and stop anti-competitive activities that harm other commodities and consumers. It would also force checkoff programs to publish their budgets and undergo periodic audits so that farmers and ranchers know where their hard-earned money is going. The Voluntary Checkoff Act, S. 740 & H.R. 1752, would ensure no farmer or rancher is forced to pay fees into programs that do not promote their market segment. Click here to support checkoff reform legislation.
State Beef Checkoff Audits
Checkoff program abuse is happening the state level, too. For example, in Oklahoma, it was recently discovered that an employee of the Oklahoma Beef Council embezzled 2.6 million checkoff tax dollars over 10 years time. In Ohio, beef checkoff funds were used illegally to influence the gubernatorial primary election. We are calling on State Auditors, Attorneys General and Budget Committees to audit the federal beef checkoff dollars in the states. Demand your tax dollars be audited and appropriated.
Request a State Level Checkoff Refund
Checkoff tax payments are mandatory, but in many states a refund from various state-level commodity checkoff programs are available. Each state has its own regulations and process. Click here for information on checkoff refunds.