Issue in Focus
Jun 29 2018
Most people are familiar with the slogans: “Got milk?”, “Pork, the other white meat,” and “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner.”
But what they might not be aware of is the cronyist underbelly of these slogans.
The US Department of Agriculture checkoff programs behind these slogans collect compulsory fees from producers of milk, eggs, beef, and other agricultural products. The funds are then used to promote and do research on those particular commodities.
Unfortunately, these programs have been rife with abuse.
The USDA has been lax in exercising oversight of checkoff boards. Many of these programs have crept beyond the scope of their statutory mandate by engaging in illegal lobbying and anti-competitive activities, such as the case of Just Mayo in California.
The original intent of these programs was not to prevent any new products from having a fair chance in the marketplace. What were supposed to be promotional boards have instead become protectionist boards.
Checkoff programs force farmers to pay into a system that sometimes actively works against their interests. On top of that, the boards for these programs have come under fire for a lack of transparency and for misuse of their funds. Some have gone so far as failing to submit congressionally mandated spending reports, refusing and delaying FOIA requests, and even engaging in protracted legal battles to prevent public audits from being disclosed.
In short, these programs are in desperate need of reform.
That is why I have worked with my colleagues, Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rand Paul (R-TN), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) to draft the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming amendment.
This bipartisan amendment began as a standalone bill and would address some of the most grievous abuses of the commodity checkoff programs.
First, it would prohibit them from contracting with any organization that lobbies on agricultural policy, with an exemption for research at institutions of higher education.
It would also prohibit employees and agents of the checkoff boards from engaging in activities that may pose a conflict of interest.
Furthermore, it would establish uniform standards for checkoff programs that prohibit anticompetitive activity and any unfair or deceptive practices, and it would implement much-needed transparency measures.
While the amendment was not adopted in the most recent Farm Bill, it continues to gain more and more support – from both sides of the aisle – and we will keep pushing for its passage.
These common-sense reforms will not be convenient to the giants in the agriculture industry – at least not the ones using checkoff dollars to rig the system in their favor. But they will help farmers – and particularly the little guys – to see exactly where the fees they pay are going and ensure that their hard-earned money is not being used against them.