In a new attempt to offer checkoff reform, Rep. Dina Titus (D., Nev.) introduced the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming (OFF) Act to “add accountability and transparency to reform" U.S. Department of Agriculture checkoff programs, according to a statement from her office.
Checkoff programs have been instrumental in the history of agricultural advertising. Famous campaigns, such as “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner,” have been paid for with farmers’ checkoff tax dollars.
The legislation, H.R. 5563, would prevent USDA checkoff programs from paying organizations that lobby on agricultural issues, prohibit anticompetitive behavior, ban activity that involves a conflict of interest and require audits every five years to ensure compliance. It would also stop federally mandated funds from being used for anticompetitive programs or from being spent to disparage another commodity in the marketplace.
The OFF Act would prohibit trade organizations that lobby from receiving checkoff funds; however, this restriction does not apply to universities. Bill supporters say it would rein in conflicts of interest and stop anticompetitive activities that harm other commodities and consumers. It would also force checkoff programs to publish their budgets and undergo periodic audits so farmers and ranchers know where their hard-earned tax dollars are going.
“The USDA’s checkoff programs have operated without sufficient oversight for far too long, and this legislation will bring much-needed accountability and transparency,” Titus said. “Family farmers should not be forced to pay into organizations that sometimes lobby against their own interests and threaten animal welfare.”
“USDA’s runaway checkoff programs must be held accountable, and family farmers have a right to know where their hard-earned dollars are being spent,” Animal Wellness Action executive director Marty Irby said. “The checkoffs remain under fire because of their lack of transparency, misuse of funds and damaging anticompetitive practices that have bankrupted millions of American farmers.”
In a statement, the Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM), which has also received funding from The Humane Society of the United States, noted that, for more than five years, it has waged a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit challenging USDA's and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn.’s (NCBA) refusal to disclose beef checkoff spending records. OCM took action following an independent audit of the program that found gross misuse of funds by NCBA, as it used checkoff funds for expenses such as spousal travel, policy work and golf tournaments.
“The evidence is clear: Commodity checkoff programs abuse the very farmers and ranchers who are mandated to pay into them,” OCM said in a statement. “The over $850 million these programs take from farmers each year are a cash cow for organizations that work against fair competition and market transparency. As long as checkoff funds remain hidden from accountability and in the hands of trade and lobbying groups, independent family agriculture is in peril of being wiped from the face of the countryside. It is imperative that this legislation be passed and signed into law.”
The National Pork Producers Council noted in an email statement to Feedstuffs that it is a “voluntarily funded, independent organization focused on advocating for the public policy interests of U.S. pork producers.” Checkoff programs such as the National Pork Board provide critical research, education and promotional work. "Pork. The Other White Meat" was developed by the council and licensed to the pork checkoff following a 2001 separation agreement approved by the U.S. government.