HSUS, OCM take on beef checkoff

NCBA petitions for intervenor status in ongoing lawsuit against USDA OIG audits of how checkoff funds are used.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn. (NCBA) was recently notified that The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) attorneys have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) on behalf of the Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM). NCBA said this lawsuit seeks to divide the beef industry against itself by opening old wounds and weakening the beef checkoff as HSUS drives toward its ultimate goal of ending animal agriculture.

In April, 2013, OCM filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the USDA OIG seeking all of the underlying information from an extensive audit OIG conducted of Cattlemen's Beef Board (CBB) operations in 2010. OCM, with HSUS's legal help, filed a lawsuit against the OIG in November 2014 asking for an injunction to force OIG to process more documents "immediately."

The lawsuit seeks the release of documents related to two OIG audits of the beef checkoff and its contractors, including NCBA. Both audits found that producer investments in the checkoff are protected by the firewall, which prevents beef checkoff dollars from being used for policy activities. Two OIG full audits and multiple random audits by USDA have found the contractors, including NCBA, to be in full compliance with the laws that protect checkoff funds.

“Those findings haven’t satisfied the extremist animal rights activists at HSUS or its partners at OCM,” NCBA chief executive officer Kendal Frazier said. “Instead of working to better our industry, these two organizations and a small handful of cattlemen have chosen a devil’s pact in an effort to weaken the checkoff, which will, in turn, weaken beef demand and our entire industry.”

Steve Dittmer, executive vice president of the Agribusiness Freedom Foundation, said in its answer to the suit, OIG held that it had tried to negotiate with OCM to "narrow the scope" of OCM's request and tried to "establish a different time frame" with OCM, but OCM had refused. OIG, therefore, claimed that "exceptional circumstances exist" and that it was "exercising due diligence" in processing documents as it could.

On Aug. 23, 2016, the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., held a hearing on the complaint and ordered the plaintiffs (OCM) and defendants (OIG) to work out a "proposed order" within two days. When the proposed order was filed with the court, however, attorneys for USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) -- the department responsible for checkoff oversight -- and OIG said neither agency could agree with the proposed order.

Dittmer reported that attorneys for AMS and OIG outlined that they would process 23,000 more pages of information. On Aug. 31, 2016, the official in charge of FOIA requests for AMS filed a four-page report tracing the activity in this case. Miscommunication between AMS and OIG teams accounted for some of the delays and complications in the case, but now, AMS had sorted things out enough to commit to determine a schedule for 9,000 of 14,000 pages within 30 days.

Dittmer said it is easy to understand why NCBA, as primary contractor to CBB, is “very concerned that over three years of delays, fits and starts, AMS is talking about processing thousands and thousands of pages in a matter of a few weeks here and thousands more in a few weeks there. How can the agency properly check for proprietary information and accomplish the necessary redactions at that speed?”

Attack on animal agriculture

NCBA said the lawsuit is another attempt by HSUS to drive a political agenda. It diverts attention from beef promotion activities and wastes precious resources at a time when cattle prices and the profitability of the beef industry are under tremendous pressure. As part of an effort to protect the beef industry and stop the frivolous and divisive work of HSUS, NCBA will seek intervenor status in the lawsuit against OIG.

“There’s no doubt that HSUS stands against rural America. Their attacks on the beef and pork checkoff programs weaken promotion efforts. HSUS and its allies have clearly demonstrated they have no interest in the livestock business beyond ending it,” Frazier said. “They will attempt to make this about transparency and say they’re undertaking this effort on behalf of producers, but let’s be clear: HSUS intends to put every (cattle producer) in America out of business. By weakening checkoff programs and damaging producer-directed marketing and promotion efforts, they can cause economic harm to our industry and force us out of production agriculture.”

“At a time when the cattle market desperately needs boosts to demand, OCM and HSUS are perfectly willing to take checkoff money away from beef promotion efforts,” Dittmer said, adding that it plays perfectly into HSUS’s hands as its goal is to cost the beef industry as much money as possible, waste resources and disrupt markets whenever possible.

“We have nothing to hide. We have and will continue to fully cooperate with all reviews and audits of our contracting activities,” Frazier said. “However, we will not stand idly by and allow HSUS to kill the checkoff. This isn’t the first attempt to weaken our industry, and it won’t be the last, but this is where we must draw a line in the sand and protect the interests of American (cattle producers).”

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