By Vaughn Meyer with Angela Huffman
In 1984, U.S. cattle producers voted to establish the Beef Checkoff Program as a means to promote their own product, U.S. beef. From the very beginning the beef checkoff was touted as a producer self-help program financed by all producers through a dollar per head assessment on every animal sold.
From the very beginning cattle producers began questioning the underlying motive of their checkoff. It soon became apparent that importers, retailers and packers got the upper hand in drafting the Act and Order (the enabling legislation under which our checkoff operates) with the elimination of the words “U.S. beef” in favor of generic imported beef.
In contrast to our suspicions, the early beef checkoff years were great with millions of revenue collections when the dollar still had value and Sam Elliott gave us that industry recognition with “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner.” In fact, revenues were so productive that in 1996 the packing industry wanted to get their foot further in the door with a proposed merger with the main checkoff contractor, the National Cattlemen’s Association (NCA). It appeared to be the perfect marriage to prevent duplication of programs, so as producers we stood by and watched the formation of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA).
The NCBA soon became the largest contractor or the “right arm” of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board (CBB). In the 2017 fiscal budget, NCBA was awarded authorization requests (ARs) totaling over $42 million, or about 98% of CBB’s total budget. The implementation fees for NCBA’s ARs are over $13 million, or 40.6% of the total checkoff funds awarded to NCBA.
One of NCBA’s past contracts with CBB assisted in the development of the My Beef Checkoff website (mybeefcheckoff.com) which primarily provides producer information in addition to consumer nutrition information.
Underscoring its domain name gives cattlemen that warm and proud feeling of ownership of their checkoff. The word “My” gives reassurance to the Act and Order reference of a producer self-help program financed by producers.
But wait a minute! Didn’t the USDA claim the word “My” with the Judge Richard Cebull ruling in the 2005 U.S. District Court case, Charter vs. USDA? Didn’t our government claim checkoff ownership under the declaration of “government speech”? Didn’t this government speech ruling set precedence for later rulings that the checkoff is a mandatory tax?
Well, despite government claims, cattlemen can rest assured there is currently no real governmental ownership of their My Beef Checkoff. On the other hand, cattlemen are not synonymous with “My” either. The results of a four-year-old Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) suit filed by the Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM) show the title of My Beef Checkoff really belongs to the NCBA. That’s right NCBA, like the Christmas Grinch, has stolen the cattlemen’s “My Beef Checkoff.”
In 2011, OCM filed the suit on behalf of cattlemen to disclose contractor checkoff abuses. In September 2016, the judge granted checkoff contractor NCBA an intervenor status in the lawsuit. In March 2017, the judge ordered NCBA to turn over records or show cause for redacted information. On March 31, 2017, NCBA and co-conspirator, USDA, released 175 pages of the 12,375 pages, thereby choosing secrecy rather than transparency. USDA is claiming checkoff audit documents are confidential. USDA and NCBA are withholding over 98.5% of federal Beef Checkoff Program spending records from the cattle producers’ Beef Checkoff Program as established under the Beef Promotion Act and Order of 1984.
NCBA, the primary CBB contractor, is depriving cattlemen the right to gain access to how their tax dollars are spent. Among the reasons USDA is giving for its claim of confidentiality is that if the records are disclosed, other organizations could underbid NCBA for checkoff contracts, insinuating that NCBA is not giving producers the best bargain for their checkoff dollars.
NCBA’s anti-competition claim is as fictitious as their mythical firewall in that NCBA is the creator of all their Authorization Requests which are never disclosed to other organizations through a CBB bidding process. During my six years serving on the CBB I have never once seen CBB singlehandedly develop contractor projects and engage in a bidding format. In accordance with past judicial rulings which decipher the Beef Checkoff as government speech and tax, the omission of contractor competition within the Beef Promotion Act and Order questions the validity of its origin?
There was also the claim by NCBA that much of the redacted information from the records released was proprietary in nature. This is an absurd comment as all records are property of those who pay the support of the checkoff program.
In conclusion, the latest FOIA battle has confirmed producer claims that NCBA, our checkoff primary contractor and their packer, retailer and processor allies, have sabotaged the Beef Checkoff and possibly are holding in secrecy incriminating information relating to contractor abuses. Once more, USDA, our supposed checkoff guardian, has aided and abetted them in their crimes toward cattlemen and the Act and Order.
There is an urgent need for producers to join organizations with goals of returning fairness to the livestock and farming industry. Beef producers in addition to other commodity producers need to immediately contact their Congressmen and Congresswomen and ask them to support the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming (OFF) Act, S. 741 and H.R. 1753, and the Voluntary Checkoff Act, S. 740 and H.R. 1752. These bills would bring much needed transparency and accountability to the federal government’s commodity checkoff programs, as well as ensure no farmer or rancher is forced to pay fees into programs that do not promote their market segment.
It is time to instill leadership within the CBB as the Act and Order dictates, and return decency, fairness and ownership back to producers’ MY BEEF CHECKOFF.