By Fred Stokes
Founding member, Organization for Competitive Markets
In its recent propaganda piece being circulated in agriculture news outlets, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) tries to draw attention away from the growing outcry for checkoff program reform by making The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) a boogeyman. The truth is, farmers and ranchers want the corrupt, broken program reformed; more than 250,000 of them made their case to Congress earlier this week. Bipartisan legislation is gaining traction in the House and Senate to reform the failing checkoff programs and make participation voluntary, and for good reason.
In 2010, an independent audit commissioned by the Cattlemen’s Beef Board examined one percent of expenditures and personnel time cards charged by the NCBA to the Beef Checkoff Program over a 29-month period ending in 2010. This was in effect the equivalent of nine days of activity. Numerous irregularities were uncovered which resulted in the NCBA being required to return to the National Beef Board more than $200,000. These irregularities included improper payment for such things as spousal travel, policy work, and golf tournaments. NCBA refers to these irregularities as “miscoding,” but perhaps a more appropriate term might be “stealing.”
A full U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Office of Inspector General (OIG) audit of the Beef Checkoff Program followed the small independent audit, and the Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM) has been working since 2011 to see the 12,000 pages of audit documents that resulted. USDA has been fighting the release of these documents in court every step of the way, claiming it would give USDA “heartburn” and would “reflect poorly on USDA (as a whole) if released.” (See the full basis of our lawsuit here.)
When OCM’s legal representation withdrew from the case because of pressure from Big Ag, OCM asked HSUS to provide legal services. HSUS agreed to help with no strings attached and at no cost, and OCM is appreciative. Without this help, there would be no hope of bringing NCBA’s misdeeds to light. NCBA is squealing like a stuck pig now that we are getting closer to revealing its gross abuse of beef checkoff funds.
The beef checkoff is a mandated assessment on producers and has been deemed “Government Speech” by the U. S. Supreme Court. It is a tax. Whether this tax money is used for direct contributions to politicians may be open to conjecture, but they assuredly constitute the majority of the salaries of the leadership of NCBA who pursue policy that is contrary to the viewpoint of most cattle producers and adverse to their interests. By any reasonable definition, this is abuse of tax dollars. Beef Checkoff Program dollars are not NCBA’s money or producers’ money; checkoff dollars are tax dollars, and cattle producers have a right to see how those dollars are being spent.
NCBA claims that for every dollar invested in the checkoff, more than $11 has been returned to the industry. The $11 has most assuredly not been returned to the cattle producers who pay into the program. While NCBA has received something on the order of a billion dollars, the program has been a dismal flop by any objective measure. The cattle producers’ share of the beef dollar has plummeted to new lows. Since the checkoff was implemented, U.S. per capita consumption of beef has declined by 30%, while per capita consumption of competing meats has increased. And while producing cattle in the highest and best market in the world, nearly half of our U.S. cattle producers have gone out of business since the NCBA has been administering the checkoff.
The waste of so many tax dollars on a failed program is regrettable. Even worse, the Beef Checkoff Program has enabled NCBA, an organization that represents less than 4% of cattle producers, to be seen as the cattle producers’ voice while working against their interests. More than 80% of NCBA’s total revenue comes from the beef checkoff, giving NCBA the influence needed to work against producers’ interests in state and national capitals. NCBA was a major promoter in the repeal of Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) for beef and pork. It opposed prohibiting packer ownership of cattle, and opposed reestablishing the authority of the Packers and Stockyards Act and the new GIPSA Rules. It opposed mandatory price reporting, and in general has worked against the same cattle producers they profess to represent.