Each year, American ranchers send about $45 million to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) to promote beef consumption. Ranchers must be swimming in cash from all that advertising!
At least that’s what NCBA wants you to believe, but this outcome couldn’t be further from the truth: America’s ranchers are going out of business at an alarming rate, while the largest meatpackers like JBS and Cargill are making record profits.
With such a generous advertising budget, you might be wondering how it’s possible for NCBA to fail so miserably at boosting business for ranchers. But it makes sense once you see how America’s corrupt checkoff programs work.
A Closer Look at Checkoff Programs
The checkoff is a mandatory tax that U.S. farmers and ranchers pay to government boards when they sell certain agricultural products, including beef, pork, eggs, and milk. The checkoff boards are supposed to award this money to contracted groups to promote their products, which theoretically benefits those paying into the program — but this is where the checkoff train derails. Thanks to a notorious lack of program oversight and transparency, checkoff funding misuse runs rampant.
Each year, the majority of beef checkoff funds are awarded to NCBA, a lobbying organization representing powerful corporate meatpackers like Tyson, Cargill, and National Beef. Though they tout themselves as a rancher-led organization, only 4% of U.S. cattle producers are members of NCBA. Yet, checkoff funds comprise more than 70% of NCBA’s budget, and they raked in $45 million of ranchers’ dollars in 2020.
NCBA Puts Ranchers’ Dollars To Work — Against Them
Let’s take a look at the shining results of NCBA’s multi-billion dollar marketing efforts: Beef demand is steadily declining, with per capita beef consumption falling from 79 pounds to under 57 pounds today. Ranchers’ share of the money consumers spend on beef has plummeted from more than 60% in the late 1980s to as low as 37% in recent years. It’s no wonder half a million U.S. cattle producers have been driven out of business since the beef checkoff was established.
So where are millions of checkoff dollars going each year if NCBA isn’t using them to help ranchers?
Though NCBA has intentionally made it difficult to track its expenditures, an independent audit from 2010 sheds some light. The audit examined the equivalent of just nine days of beef checkoff program spending and found that NCBA improperly spent more than $200,000 in checkoff funds on overseas vacations and lobbying — which is illegal.
Adding insult to injury, the policies that NCBA promotes actively harm family farmers and ranchers while benefiting the largest meatpackers. In 2015, NCBA successfully lobbied to kill Mandatory Country of Origin Labeling (MCOOL) for beef, which was a powerful marketing tool for independent ranchers to distinguish their products from lower quality imported meat sold by giant meatpackers like JBS or Cargill.
Most recently, NCBA has launched a campaign against the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act (OFF Act), which would protect farmers by stopping checkoff dollars from going to lobbying groups and requiring checkoff program transparency and oversight. It’s no surprise that NCBA is scared of the OFF Act — they’d lose 70% of their funding.
Corporations Win Big Thanks to NCBA
It sure looks like NCBA has squandered ranchers’ hard-earned money, as they clearly haven’t delivered on helping farmers. But if NCBA’s mission is to lobby for policies that help giant meatpackers amass power and squash competition, they’ve done a swell job: the proof is in the profits.
As Americans faced crushing inflation in the wake of the pandemic, multinational meatpackers reported record profits. Brazilian meatpacking behemoth JBS increased its net income by a whopping 325.54% in 2021, pulling in $3.796 billion. NCBA’s own members — Marfrig (National Beef), Tyson Foods, and Cargill — also had banner years, with Marfrig and Cargill increasing their profits by 53% and 23% respectively in fiscal year 2022. Tyson’s impressive 48% year-over-year profit increase in 2021 pulled in over $3 billion for the company.
It turns out NCBA has used ranchers’ checkoff dollars very effectively after all. The corporate shareholders must be giddy.
TAKE ACTION TO REFORM CORRUPT CHECKOFF PROGRAMS
Written and edited by: Jessica Cusworth and Dee Laninga; concept developed by Joe Maxwell and Angela Huffman