The Hill | “Got Milk” Has Got to Go, Left and Right Agree

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Got Milk. The other white meat. Beef: It’s what’s for dinner.

The libertarian right and progressive left don’t agree on much, but they are in lockstep regarding “checkoff” programs — the public-private partnerships that churned out all those familiar marketing slogans.

In March, five lawmakers led in the Senate by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) introduced the bipartisan Opportunities for Fairness in Farming (OFF) Act, which would radically reform the program. 

That bipartisan bill represents a broader movement with advocates across the political spectrum. For groups from ThinkProgress to the Heritage Foundation and Farm Action to FreedomWorks, checkoff programs are a hallmark of the deep corruption they believe has permeated the American farm sector.

These factions have very different ultimate goals for American agriculture: a government-backed green farmstead in the progressive camp, and drastic deregulation on the right.

But for now, both agree the main problem in the sector is that the U.S. government has subsidized a wave of corporate consolidation in agriculture that has squeezed hundreds of thousands of farmers off the land.

The checkoff programs began in the 1930s as a voluntary fee that farmers could opt into — by “checking off” a box — which would direct a small sum from every purchase to market the specific commodity being sold. (For example, the beef checkoff program currently receives $1 every time a cow changes hands.)

But in 1988, nearly 80 percent of producers voted to make those fees mandatory. This created a huge source of marketing funds, overseen by elected bodies like the Dairy Board and the Beef Board that were responsible for running ad campaigns to promote eggs, beef, soy or the 18 other checkoff commodities.

Throughout the 1990s, these boards contracted with hybrid marketing and advocacy groups like Dairy Management Inc. and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA).

The checkoff programs, both progressives and libertarians believe, now represent a tax on all farmers — and one which often supports products, practices and policies that are driving corporate consolidation in agriculture onward and forcing many of them out of business.

That’s in stark contrast to what the programs’ proponents say they do: neutrally promote entire industries.

“Checkoff programs have made significant, measurable strides in raising the level of demand and awareness for our farmers, ranchers and foresters’ products,” Rep. Barry Moore (R-Ala.) said as he introduced a July resolution supporting the embattled programs.

But many farm groups argue that rather than raising demand in general, the checkoff programs in fact promote a very specific version of agriculture that leaves smaller farmers out.

In the beef industry, for example, one group — the NCBA, a union of large ranchers and big meatpackers like Tyson and Cargill — gets half of the entire pool of checkoff money, which pays for 70 percent of its operations. 

Critics charge that the NCBA has also advocated against measures — like mandatory country-of-origin labeling, which aims to keep cheaper foreign beef from undercutting U.S.-raised beef prices — that have helped slash income for smaller farmers. 

They further argue that NCBA-sponsored policies (like the push against mandatory labels) have helped drive the larger consolidation that drove half a million cattle farmers out of the business between 1980 and 2017.

The NCBA — which has pushed instead for voluntary labeling — insists that it maintains a clear separation between its lobbying and marketing arms and that no checkoff dollars go to the former.

But even if that’s completely true, influence can be as fungible as money, said Angela Huffman, president of the farm reform group Farm Action.

Huffman argued that the NCBA’s posture as the preeminent voice on the Beef Board — which oversees the collection and spending of beef checkoff money — bolsters the organization’s stature and reinforces its position as beef-industry advocate.

“If you build the NCBA up in one aspect, they have a much-outsized voice and other aspects, even though they speak for a small minority of American farmers,” she said. 

Since the groups that administer checkoff dollars tend to incorporate lobby shops that push for a similarly specific vision of American agriculture, “the biggest lightning-rod issue here is saying that [checkoff] dollars should not be going to groups that engage in lobbying,” said Adam Zipkin, deputy chief of staff for Booker.

There are serious concerns about how funds are being spent, as well. The Dairy Board, for example, is supposed to submit to Congress every year an accounting of how it has used its checkoff money — but it has failed to file any such report since President Biden took office.

During that period, the dairy checkoff program took in more than a billion dollars — and “more than 6,000 dairy farmers went out of business,” Farm Action and the National Dairy Producers Council, a union of farmers pushing for industry reform, wrote to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in June.

Beneficiaries of the program have also faced accusations of illegally disparaging other industries while promoting their own. 

In May, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine filed a complaint against the Dairy Board for its satirical “Wood Milk” ad spot in which “Parks and Recreation” actor Aubrey Plaza promotes a fictitious milk product made from wood pulp. “Only real milk is real,” Plaza says at the end — which, the physicians’ group argued, breaks the rules against disparaging other farm products. 

“It is one thing for it to promote cow’s milk. It is quite another thing to mock the products that many nonwhite Americans choose for health reasons,” Physicians Committee President Neal Barnard, a medical professor at George Washington University, said in a statement.

That campaign came on the heels of a covert push by the Egg Board to destroy Just Mayo, a vegan brand.

All of these issues point to the same problem, critics told The Hill: that everyone has to pay for advocacy that benefits only a few. “If you point to where [checkoff money] is going, the groups that are getting the dollars represent the interests of just a sliver of producers that are being required to pay in,” Zipkin, Booker’s deputy chief of staff, told The Hill. 

That’s a problem even when the checkoff administrators stay right in their lane as promoters, critics said. For example, the Dairy Board spends millions each year on promotions with big brands — like Domino’s, the National Football League and Yum! Brands, the parent company of Taco Bell and Pizza Hut — that only the biggest and most industrialized dairy farmers can take advantage of. 

(This amounts, critics have argued, to U.S. dairy farmers being required to help defray Domino’s and Pizza Hut’s advertising costs.)

Or take the slogan, “The other white meat,” used to promote pork. For a lot of pig farmers, that claim is inaccurate, argued Huffman, president of Farm Action. Until a breeding program in the late 20th century, “pork didn’t used to be a white meat at all.”

“These ads promote pork being a certain way,” she said — and one that she argued squeezes smaller farmers or those growing heirloom breeds. (The Department of Agriculture (USDA) itself notes that pork is still a red meat.) 

Meanwhile, Huffman said, as in the other animal protein industries, the Pork Board has ignored what she characterized as the real crisis in its industry: the loss of 70 percent of the nation’s pig farmers since 1990 in a wave of government-approved consolidation.

For the reform camp, the goal is to “cut out the middlemen” and let the checkoff boards contract advertisers themselves, rather than farming the job out to advocacy groups like the NCBA. In particular, the OFF Act would ban the checkoff boards from farming out their marketing to any group that performs any kind of lobbying.

The act also requires the boards to regularly account for their spending and for the USDA inspector general and the Government Accountability Office to audit them.

The NCBA argues that the transparency requirements are redundant, saying they already exist and that the rest of the legislation simply wouldn’t work.

“It’s a question of who’s making a decision on how you’re going to market your product,” said Ethan Lane, vice president for government affairs at the NCBA.

He compared a publicly-run checkoff program to a world in which Kellogg’s signature Frosted Flakes cereal couldn’t sport mascot Tony the Tiger, “but instead the USDA is saying now, you need to have a spotted leopard on there instead, because we think that’s more descriptive of the cereal in the package.” That comparison may be misleading, because the OFF Act as written would have no effect on corporate branding. 

Checkoff supporters have also cast the reform movement as driven by opponents of animal agriculture, rather than farmers themselves.  “There’s a reason that animal rights groups have made this one of their top priorities for the cycle: They don’t want animal agriculture to exist,” Lane said. For those groups, farmers “being able to promote their own product is a real problem,” he added.

NCBA President Todd Wilkinson urged members of Congress to “listen to farmers and ranchers and reject animal rights activist-led proposals like the OFF Act.”

But while animal rights groups are part of the anti-checkoff coalition, they are by no means the sole — or even the dominant — players. Instead, farmers and ranchers themselves — and their red-state representatives like Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) and Rep. Victoria Spartz (R-Ind.) — are major players in the anti-corporate farm reform push, a drive that goes far beyond checkoff reform.

Farm reform is the only place in Washington, D.C., “where practically the entirety of the think tank community on the left and right agree on most of the problems,” said David Ditch, who works on agriculture for The Heritage Foundation. In particular, both progressives and farm-state libertarian conservatives feel that the USDA and the farm aid programs funneled through it “have represented little more than crony capitalism,”  Ditch said. The farm sector, he said, is marked by both “powerful corporate interests — a problem that appeals to the left — and also market manipulation and federal spending issues that appeals to more free-market, conservative libertarians.”

Ditch said — and progressives allies agreed — that the checkoffs weren’t the worst part of this complex, just the one most vulnerable to reform.  But he argued the way the programs’ proponents defend it highlights a key lie underlying American farm politics: that it purports to be a sector represented by Old MacDonald, rather than McDonald’s.

The checkoff programs’ advocates, he said, took advantage of “this very old-fashioned understanding of farms as being all operated by families — when the reality is that [the modern farm] is very corporatized, it’s very sophisticated, and it’s very big.” He argued that the policies Americans would want for the mid-sized family farms of the midcentury are inappropriate for today’s modern, highly consolidated sector.

If the OFF Act passes, Huffman of Farm Action said, groups like the NCBA would still exist as advocacy groups — but they would have to stand on their own feet. They would be “forced to be independent, like any other lobbying group, or any other foundation that has to go out and raise money.” 

They’d be, she added, “in the same boat as us.”