OPINION: Cattle ranchers being seared by meatpacking industry in beef checkoff program

OPINION: Cattle ranchers being seared by meatpacking industry in beef checkoff program

By Cash Carruth / Bloomfield resident

Mar 25, 2024 Updated 2 hrs ago

A pen of Hereford heifers on a ranch near Stanley in May 2020. Some cattle ranchers are raising dust over the federal government’s dollar-per-head beef checkoff system, which they say has been co-opted by the meatpacking industry.

I’m writing this on the heels of a great event in my home state of New Mexico called Our Sacred Lands: Food, Farming, and Fairness, which spotlit the challenges facing farmers and ranchers like me.

At this event, I shared a little bit about a government program that has been co-opted and corrupted by the corporate meatpacking industry, which uses it as a tool to stomp independent ranchers out of business. It’s called the beef checkoff, and it is way past due for reform.

Whether they raise a few dozen or feed several thousand head of cattle, every cattle producer is required to pay a dollar per head to the beef checkoff. Make no mistake about these checkoff programs: they are big business. Cattle change hands a minimum of two times before slaughter, sometimes even three times. Within a week, the United States kills more than 600,000 fat cattle, and that generates a lot of checkoff dollars.

But all that money pouring in isn’t benefiting individual ranchers, despite what certain return-on-investment studies might say about how great the checkoff is for ranchers’ bottom lines.

The authors of these studies have even admitted that they are only measuring whether the checkoff increases beef consumption — not how it impacts ranchers. If you actually read the studies, that return-on-investment amount is actually the “beef industry producer profit,” meaning that Tyson and JBS are the ones reaping all the returns, not the ranchers paying into the program.

In fact, the checkoff is actually harming ranchers’ ability to stay in business. That dollar-per-head gets siphoned into a complicated web of state and national checkoff councils, which have deep connections to lobbying groups that represent the meatpacking industry.

Sometimes they even share office space and staff. Their purpose is to spend money on lobbying, but it’s not on our behalf: Checkoff-funded lobbying groups like National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) have fought Country of Origin Labeling laws and other reforms that would set our products apart and grow our businesses. This kind of lobbying only helps the big get bigger by supporting industrial operations and integrated meatpackers to the detriment of family farmers.

The lack of transparency and oversight in the checkoff program is what gets me the most. Given that it’s my money going to this tax, I want to know where it’s going.

This system is clearly rigged to benefit the industry over farmers, but it’s hard to track exactly how checkoff dollars are used due to complex organizational structure. It’s no secret that the NCBA-controlled Federation of State Beef Councils directs the flow of checkoff dollars to its many affiliated trade associations, but the activities and spending of all these affiliates is hopelessly unclear.

The financial records published by these trade associations and their government checkoff counterparts are extremely vague, and some groups receiving checkoff funds don’t publish financial records at all.

The last thing the powerful members of this complicated web want is more audits that would reveal how they’re using ranchers’ own funds against them. But it’s past time to reform the beef checkoff, and the good news is that there is bipartisan legislation being considered for the next Farm Bill that would establish basic accountability and transparency for the checkoff dollars collected from farmers and ranchers, and prohibit these funds from being contracted to lobbying organizations.

All across the country, ranchers like me are calling for the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming (OFF) Act. We have the support of groups like Farm Action Fund, R-CALF USA, and the National Farmers Union.

The OFF Act wouldn’t end the 22 different checkoff programs in the U.S., but it would add the amount of transparency you’d expect for government programs handling hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars. I’m calling on Sen. Ben Ray Luján to support New Mexico’s hardworking cattlemen and women by passing the OFF Act.

Cash Carruth is a rancher in northwest New Mexico and a board member of R-CALF USA.