by Marion Nestle
Aug 3 2010

I’m shocked, shocked. Cattlemen misuse checkoff funds.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which got $51 million in checkoff funds last year, is improperly allowing some of this money to be spent on lobbying activities, according to William Neuman in today’s New York Times.

Checkoff programs are administered by the USDA.  They tax commodity producers to fund generic marketing campaigns (think: Milk Mustache).  As I explained in my book, Food Politics:

Although the check-off legislation specifically prohibits use of the funds for lobbying, the distinction between promoting a product to consumers as opposed to promoting it to lawmakers can be subtle. Some of the boards are so closely affiliated with lobbying groups that they share office space.

For many years, the Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board (check-off organization) shared an address with the National Cattleman’s Association (trade association lobbying group), and the National Pork Board (check-off) shared offices, staff, and telephone services with the National Pork Producers Council (lobbying).

Even cozier, the legislation specifies that a certain percentage of the funds must be allocated to the commodity groups responsible for nominating the board members who run the programs; these members are officially appointed by USDA.

Check-off funds are supposed to be used for research as well as advertising, but only a small fraction is used for that purpose. In the mid-1990s, 8% of the beef check-off’s $80 million or so went to research, and the rest for promotion and “information;” research percentages for dairy, egg, potato, and soybean checkoff programs were slightly higher.

Regardless of level, nearly all of the research is designed to promote the commodity. Beef check-off research is designed to “dispel negative perceptions about beef,” and to develop a factual basis for viewing beef products as “part of a varied, convenient, and healthful diet”….The great majority of the funds are spent to convince consumers to choose one type of food product over another.

The Meat and Beef Boards, for example, design campaigns to build demand for red meats and meat products; encourage consumers to view beef as wholesome, versatile, and lower in cholesterol; and educate doctors, nurses, dietitians, teachers, and the media about the nutritional benefits of beef.

Checkoff programs reek of conflicts of interest.  What makes this particular audit so interesting is that it was done by an outside accounting firm.  Usually, these things are done internally and remain private.  Chalk one up for this administration’s attempt to be transparent.

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  • http://www.StopBloggingAndCook.com Joy

    How long until the government learns that paying the conventional food industry to promote its products is not helping to improve the American diet? One association, receiving $51B in one year in check-off funds, has proved it cannot be trusted. Certainly a reasonable punishment would be to bar that assoc from ever receiving such funds again.

    There must be many independent agencies (Consumers Union, CSPI) who would make better use of research and promotional funds to actually improve the public health rather than the health of big business’ bottom line. It is a pretty ignorant citizenry that cannot see through the sham of the meat industry advertising advantages of eating meat. Is the produce industry paid similarly to tell Americans to eat more fresh produce?

  • Cathy Richards

    Marion, you’re so funny! I love your headline. Truly shocking information. :)

  • Anthro

    I laughed out loud at your headline as well! I also share your dismay at this corruption of what may have started out to genuinely fund research.

    I used to think that consumers should be more responsible and not respond to all this absurd advertising, but having explored the nuances of the way the industry uses psychology and acknowledging the vulnerability of the average TV viewer (especially children), have led me to see the situation in a broader sense. Public health is for EVERYONE, not just the well-informed. Young adults today have grown up in a world of fast and always available food–a whole generation is now in the thrall of Big Food and I worry that we old birds aren’t going to live long enough to affect the needed change and put the brakes on this industry.

    The Times article brings a much-needed morsel of optimism and hope. Thanks for posting this as I missed it in the paper.

  • http://smartculturekitchen.blogspot.com Michael Bulger

    In short, Joy, they are not paid similarly.

    I found these figures on annual check-off collections on nationalaglawcenter.org and they appear to be from a congressional report.

    Fluid milk $107.8 million (1993)
    Dairy products $281.2 million (1984)
    Beef $79.8 million (1986)
    Pork $65.4 million (1986)
    Blueberries $1.9 million (2000)
    Hass avocados $24.2 million (2002)
    Mushrooms $2.6 million (1993)

    (http://www.nationalaglawcenter.org/assets/crs/95-353.pdf)

    The numbers are spread over almost two decades, so you have to adjust for inflation. Still, it is apparent who is commanding more money through these programs. I didn’t see any numbers on brussel sprouts, which I consider an under-appreciated food that perhaps could use a little advertising boost.

  • http://www.ethicurean.com/author/mental-masala/ Marc

    Joy wrote “How long until the government learns that paying the conventional food industry to promote its products is not helping to improve the American diet?”

    Strictly speaking, the check-off funds are not taxpayer dollars allocated by the government. Instead, they are self-imposed taxes that the industries convinced Congress to impose on their members, with all proceeds going to the promotion boards. Of course, since some of the higher costs are likely passed on to consumers, one could consider it a tax paid by consumers too. The mandatory nature of the check-offs has caused some controversy among sectors of various product producers. For example, farmers that raise heritage hogs organically aren’t crazy about their check-off dollars supporting factory farming, but they can’t get out of paying the fee.

    Dr. Nestle’s book “Food Politics” has a great summary of the history of check-off programs. Another good source is the report that Michael Bulger cited above, Congressional Research Report 95-353, “Federal Farm Promotion (“Check-Off”) Programs”. It has lots of details about legal challenges to the programs. Another good source is the U.S. Food Policy blog (http://usfoodpolicy.blogspot.com/), which has taken special interest in shenanigans at the Pork Board.

  • http://www.zweberfarms.wordpress.com Emily

    I just wanted to concur that Marc is correct that check-off dollars are paid by the producers. Each check off fund is run and funded differently. As an organic dairy producer, we have the option to opt in or out of the national dairy check-off, but we are required to pay our regional/state check-off.
    I have a love/hate relationship with check-off and producer groups. While most of the time they do not represent our farm’s ideals, I also know that the only way to have our voice heard is to be part of these very powerful organizations. Check-off’s have their place. Very little funding (from any source) is available for research. While we all complain about biases, right now check-off dollars do help with promotion, education and product development. Got Milk??

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