NE Journal Star editorial — Checkoff secrecy not justified

Editorial, 5/13:

· By the Journal Star editorial board

Some agricultural commodity groups managed to slip a passage into an appropriations bill that would exempt them from the Freedom of Information Act. Members of Congress need to strip out the language before it becomes law.

The commodity groups are just trying to avoid public scrutiny. The attempt is anti-consumer and contrary to the public interest.

In the Farm and Food column in last Sunday’s Journal Star columnist Alan Guebert recounted multiple examples of how he has used the FOIA to unearth questionable and downright illegal spending by the checkoff organizations.

Among them was the time the National Pork Producers Council hired a Washington D.C. consulting firm to spy on “activist groups.” The “activist groups” included such mainline organizations as Nebraska’s Center for Rural Affairs and the National Farmers Union.

More recently advocates used the law to unearth emails efforts by the American Egg Board to prevent Hampton Creek, a San Francisco startup, from selling a plant-based product called Just Mayo at Whole Foods.

The emails included some creepy jokes about killing Hampton Creek’s CEO. “Can we pool our money and put a hit on him?” asked one egg board member, according to The Guardian newspaper. An executive with the checkoff organization offered “to contact some of my buddies in Brooklyn” to pay a visit to the CEO.

The American Egg Board, which is under investigation by the US. Department of Agriculture because of the reports, has since apologized for the remarks. The board’s CEO has taken early retirement.

The checkoff programs are quasi-public programs established by Congress, with boards appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture.

Producers are required by law to pay into the checkoffs. In fact the U.S. Supreme Court has decreed that checkoff promotions are government speech. In short the organizations are using the federal government’s authority to tax as they collect about $500 million a year from producers.

The public has every right to know how the organizations are spending their money.

If Congress goes along with their attempt to hide their activities from public view it will make it more difficult for the public to learn about their food and where it comes from. As Guebert reported, the 217-page funding bill for the USDA’s $21.3 billion budget for next year sailed through on a voice vote.

Americans are well aware that Congress is barely functioning these days. It’s all too easy for lobbyists to sneak things into legislation. We hope that Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, who is a member of the House Appropriations Committee, and the rest of Nebraska’s congressional delegation can pry this passage out of the bill before it goes further.