Denver Post: Colorado rancher is tired of paying a corrupt federal fee for meat-packing lobbyists

Opinion: Colorado rancher is tired of paying a corrupt federal fee for meat-packing lobbyists

Pass the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act to reform the corrupt checkoff programs

In this 2017 file photo, John May a custom cutter with 35 years experience works on a side of buffalo at Ranch Foods Direct in Colorado Springs. The store and meat packing facility are owned by rancher Mike Callicrate who is advocating for reform of the checkoff program which spends money lobbying on behalf of corporate meat packing plants. (Joe Amon, The Denver Post)

By Mike Callicrate | Guest Commentary

May 11, 2023 at 6:01 a.m.

Does the phrase “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner” ring a bell? Many Americans still remember this catchy slogan from a 1993 advertisement. But here’s a lesser-known detail about this campaign: It’s the product of checkoff programs, one of the most corrupt institutions in American agriculture.

Until Congress reforms these programs, farmers’ and ranchers’ hard-earned dollars are being used to fund their own demise. The Opportunities for Fairness in Farming (OFF) Act is our opportunity for checkoff reform.

Once a voluntary fee, today’s checkoff is a mandatory tax that U.S. farmers and ranchers like me pay when we sell certain commodities, including beef. Since the beef checkoff was established in 1985, more than $1 billion in checkoff fees have been collected by the Cattlemen’s Beef Board (CBB), which manages the government checkoff program.

As a rancher paying the beef checkoff since its beginning, I’m angry it continues to be invested against my interests. It’s like being forced to buy your own hanging rope or digging your own grave.

The CBB is supposed to use these fees for product research and promotion, which theoretically benefits those of us paying into the program.

But in reality, these corrupt programs extract money from farmers and ranchers against their will and funnel it to corporate lobbyists. Those lobbyists then promote policies that benefit meatpacking corporations and harm farmers — even though it’s illegal to use checkoff funds for lobbying.

Let’s follow the money: The CBB directs the majority of ranchers’ dollars to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), a lobbying organization representing corporate meatpackers like Tyson, Cargill, and National Beef. NCBA’s membership is only 4% of U.S. cattle producers, though they tout themselves as a rancher-led organization. Checkoff funds comprise more than 70% of NCBA’s budget. In 2020, they raked in $45 million of ranchers’ dollars.

NCBA doesn’t use these funds to help the ranchers who pay into the program. In 2010, an independent audit examining the equivalent of just nine days of beef checkoff program spending found that NCBA improperly spent more than $200,000 in checkoff funds on overseas vacations and lobbying efforts against policies that would level the playing field for ranchers, such as Mandatory Country of Origin Labeling (MCOOL).

This program abuse is possible because checkoff programs notoriously lack oversight and hide financial reports. Even though the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) called on the USDA to increase checkoff oversight and transparency, little action has been taken. The CBB and NCBA have since teamed up to block Freedom of Information Act requests for the release of beef checkoff audits.

While checkoff programs expend time and resources hiding their funding misuse, they’ve done little to actually help cattle producers. In fact, the plight of family farmers and ranchers has only gotten worse since the program was established. Beef demand has dropped, with per capita beef consumption falling from 79 pounds to under 57 pounds today. Cattle producers’ share of the money consumers spend on beef fell from over 60% in the late 1980s to as low as 37% in recent years. It’s no wonder America has lost half a million cattle producers since the beef checkoff was established.

Congress must act to protect American family farmers and ranchers from checkoff corruption by passing the OFF Act. The bill draws broad support from both sides of the aisle, with 38 senators voting to support it in the 2018 Farm Bill debate. The bill was reintroduced in 2023 by Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), and by Reps. Nancy Mace (R-South Carolina) and Dina Titus (D-Nevada) in the House.

The OFF Act would rein in checkoff program abuse by restoring program transparency and accountability. The bill would require checkoff programs to publish their budgets and expenses, prohibit contracts with organizations that lobby on agricultural policy, and require periodic audits of compliance by the USDA Inspector General.

It’s time to reform corrupt checkoff programs by passing the OFF Act. Interested readers should contact their U.S. Senators and Representatives and urge them to co-sponsor the OFF Act today.

Mike Callicrate is a Farm Action local leader, an independent cattle producer, and owner of Ranch Foods Direct, a farm to plate meat company based in Colorado Springs.