Reform Corrupt Checkoff Programs

Farmers' hard-earned money is being used against them.

Famous promotional campaigns like “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner” and “Pork. The Other White Meat” are the product of one of the most corrupt institutions in American agriculture: checkoff programs. 

Started as a way for farmers to voluntarily pool their money to boost the overall sales of their products, checkoff programs have evolved into a behind-the-scenes government machine extracting money from farmers against their will — and then funneling it to corporate lobbyists.

America’s farmers and ranchers are being forced to pay into checkoff programs, only to see their dollars used against them by lobbying organizations representing the world’s largest meatpackers and grain traders. Join us in fighting to reform these corrupt programs.

This short video uses the beef checkoff to illustrate how these programs actually work, how they exploit farmers and ranchers, and who actually benefits. 

TAKE ACTION TO REFORM CORRUPT CHECKOFF PROGRAMS

The Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act (OFF Act) would restore transparency and accountability to checkoff programs, and keep them out of the hands of trade and lobbying organizations. With just a few clicks, you can visit our political partner Farm Action Fund and tell your representatives to co-sponsor the OFF Act.

CHECKOFF ABUSES

Decades of checkoff corruption has not escaped the notice of farmers — or the media. We’ve collected some of the most egregious checkoff abuses from recent years, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. For a deep dive into the history of checkoff programs — dripping with controversy, greed, and legal challenges — check out our “Root of the Issue” blog.

The American Prospect: Farmers Pay Big Ag to Lobby Against Them (April 2023)

Checkoff funds comprised more than 70% of the lobbying group National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s 2020 budget. Since NCBA began administering the checkoff funds, the U.S. has lost nearly half of its cattle producers and four corporations have seized control of 85% of the cattle market. 

NCBA is a policy organization and has taken positions opposed to the interests of the livestock producers who bankroll the checkoff. Instead, NCBA actively lobbies for policies that benefit multinational corporations.

Washington Monthly: Big Beef (December 2013) 

In 2010, an independent audit examining the equivalent of just nine days of beef checkoff program spending found that the NCBA had improperly spent more than $200,000 in checkoff funds on lobbying and overseas vacations. Despite a Freedom of Information Act complaint, the full audit has not been released to the public.

Western Ag Reporter: Farm Groups Call for Disqualification of Ohio Beef Council from Checkoff Program (June 2018)

The Ohio Beef Council, entrusted by the government with managing the beef checkoff program in Ohio, illegally used government property to promote a fundraiser for a gubernatorial campaign on behalf of the trade and lobbying group, Ohio Cattlemen’s Association. According to the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association’s brochure, the Ohio Beef Council also solicited campaign contributions on behalf of the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association’s Political Action Committee (PAC) through the state agency’s email domain.

The Oklahoman: Former accountant for Oklahoma Beef Council sentenced in multi-million dollar embezzlement scheme (January 2018)

An accountant for the Oklahoma Beef Council embezzled millions of rancher dollars over a seven-year period to open her own clothing boutique. This was possible due to a lack of oversight over the checkoff program.

Politico: A $60 million pork kickback? (August 2015)

The National Pork Board continued to pay the National Pork Producers Council $3 million per year for the “Pork. The Other White Meat” slogan for years after it was defunct in a licensing scheme. Independent pig farmers sued on the basis that their checkoff dollars shouldn’t go to NPPC, which actively works against their interests.

Politico: A $60 million pork kickback? (August 2015)

In 2000, hog farmers successfully petitioned for a referendum on the checkoff. More than 30,000 hog farmers voted in the referendum, and the resulting decision — by five percentage points — was to end the program. But the NPPC challenged the referendum in court. Ultimately, USDA secretary Ann Veneman overturned the referendum result, forcing the hog farmers to continue paying checkoff fees.

The American Prospect: Farmers Pay Big Ag to Lobby Against Them (April 2023)

Through contracts with Dairy Management Inc., the dairy checkoff spends farmers’ dollars on partnerships with huge corporations: most recently, millions went to develop extra cheese pizza at Domino’s and new dairy drinks at McDonald’s. Another partnership with the company Fairlife supported the research and marketing for a new protein shake replacement. After the product was released — thanks to farmers’ support — the dairy giant Select Milk Producers helped sell Fairlife to Coca-Cola.

The Fern: Vilsack’s checkoff problem (August 2021)

The dairy checkoff, being the largest pool of money, is legally required by Congress to submit annual financial reports — but failed to do so for five years.

Agri-Pulse: Ag leaders facing unprecedented challenges see pay raises, some status quo during pandemic (September 2021)

The dairy checkoff organization, the National Dairy Promotion and Research Board, and the trade lobbying group, Dairy Management Inc. have an extremely close relationship. Until Sept 2021, Tom Gallagher was the CEO of both. His combined compensation from both roles was $1,512,930 — all as the farmers who pay this salary go out of business.

L.A. Times: The egg industry launched a secret two-year war against a vegan mayonnaise competitor (October 2016)

The American Egg Board waged a targeted campaign against a plant-based mayo startup, hiring a PR firm to track the startup’s online presence and tank its online advertising efforts. Egg Board executives exchanged emails about hiring a consultant to pull the product from Whole Foods’ shelves, and even about putting out a hit on its founder. Federal investigators determined that the Egg Board’s obsessive campaign focusing on one company and product — and failure to submit the budgets for that campaign to the USDA for review — violated federal guidelines.

Agri-Pulse: Sex, knives and soybean politics  (December 2008) 

A complaint filed by soybean growers accused the United Soybean Board of a number of serious crimes: theft, sexual harassment, and even assault by the then-CEO of the U.S. Soybean Export Council. An investigation by the Office of Inspector General revealed that the Export Council had also doled out more than $300,000 of growers’ checkoff dollars to its staff as “bonuses.”

Environmental Paper Network: Got Accountability? The USDA’s Paper and Packaging Commodity Checkoff Program Continues to Operate in Secrecy (July 2021)

The Paper and Packaging checkoff program kicks the public out of its supposedly public meetings after roll call, and maintains close relationships with lobbying organizations like the American Forest and Paper Association (AF&PA) and the Coalition for Paper Options.

WHAT CAN BE DONE ABOUT CHECKOFF CORRUPTION?

Instead of forcing farmers to pay into a system that harms them, we should change the system. We have three primary courses of action: make them voluntary, reform them, or end them altogether.

Make Them Voluntary

To start, a return to a voluntary checkoff would allow farmers, ranchers and producers to opt into checkoff payments as they could when the programs were first envisioned. This gives back power to producers: if the checkoff program is benefiting them, they can show support by opting in. If it is not beneficial, they can voice opposition by keeping their money and putting it to work on their farm or ranch.

Reform Them

There is a bill in Congress right now that would restore a great deal of integrity and transparency to these programs.

The Opportunities for Fairness in Farming (OFF) Act would:

  • Prohibit checkoff programs from contracting with any organization that lobbies on agricultural policy.
  • Require transparency through the publication of checkoff program budgets and expenditures.
  • Require periodic audits of compliance with the act by the USDA Inspector General.

Our political partner Farm Action Fund is working with a large coalition to pass the OFF Act. Want to help? In just a few clicks, you can ask your legislator to co-sponsor the OFF Act.

End Them

At the end of the day, we may just need to call it. If checkoffs prove to be beyond repair, they should be eliminated. There is one thing we know for sure: farmers and ranchers should have a say in where their hard-earned money goes.

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