Lawmakers reintroduce bill to reform checkoff programs

Bill would require producer participation in checkoff programs to be voluntary at point of sale.

Federal lawmakers reintroduced legislation Tuesday to bring what they view as “much-needed transparency and accountability to the federal government’s commodity checkoff programs.”

The Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act, S. 741, was introduced by Sens. Mike Lee (R., Utah) and Cory Booker (D., N.J.); Reps. Dave Brat (R., Va.) and Dina Titus (D., Nev.) plan to introduce companion legislation in the House.

S. 740, the Voluntary Checkoff Act, was reintroduced by Lee, and it will also be introduced in the House. The bill prohibits mandatory or compulsory checkoff programs and requires producer participation in the programs to be voluntary at the point of sale. A checkoff is a program that promotes and provides research and information for a particular agricultural commodity without reference to specific producers or brands.

On Tuesday afternoon, Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM) founder Fred Stokes spoke at a congressional briefing on Capitol Hill hosted by OCM and the Heritage Foundation to discuss what they view as the “checkoff programs’ abuses.”

Stokes said, “The original intent of these checkoff programs was to help U.S. farmers and ranchers, but they have been hijacked by corporate interests and, oftentimes, foreign corporate interests. The half-billion dollars that these programs generate each year are being used to pick winners and losers in the market. They even engage in anti-market access campaigns within the same market sector or commodity. These funds have become the cash cow for organizations that work against fair competition for family farmers.”

Checkoff program participation is mandatory under the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These programs are funded through required fees on producers of eggs, beef, pork and a multitude of other agricultural products.

“Lax oversight by USDA has resulted in collusive and illegal relationships between checkoff boards and lobbying organizations, both of which have repeatedly used checkoff funds to influence legislation and government action despite a broad statutory prohibition against these activities,” OCM said in a statement.

OCM president Mike Weaver noted, “In 2005, the Supreme Court determined these are government programs, and with the commodity checkoff boards being co-opted by industrial agriculture trade organizations, family farmers’ only hope is that Congress will take action on these extremely important bills. We are fighting in the courts and getting at the truth; commodity checkoff programs need to be reformed.”

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