Morning Agriculture

A daily briefing on agriculture and food policy

By Jason Huffman

03/29/17 10:00 AM EDT

With help from Jenny Hopkinson, Catherine Boudreau and Helena Bottemiller Evich

OPPOSITES ATTRACT IN COMMODITY CHECKOFF REFORM: Strange bedfellows are united over an effort to overhaul commodity checkoff programs, which have been dogged by controversy for decades. Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) reintroduced the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act of 2017 (S. 741) on Tuesday. The bill would prohibit checkoff programs from taking anti-competitive actions and contracting with any organization that lobbies on agricultural policy, among other prohibitions. Checkoff programs, which are overseen by USDA, also would be required to publish their budgets and undergo periodic audits by the department’s Office of Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office.

Lee, in remarks during a panel on Capitol Hill Tuesday, highlighted the recent American Egg Board scandal to advocate for the bill. Emails obtained by The Guardian revealed that the checkoff waged a campaign against Hampton Creek, a vegan food startup that produces eggless mayonnaise marketed as "Just Mayo." Checkoff programs are intended to promote certain commodities, not to disparage others, and because participation is mandated, farmers are sometimes forced to pay into a system that isn’t in their best interests, Lee said.

Lee also introduced a separate bill (S. 740) that would make participation in checkoffs voluntary. Checkoffs are funded through mandatory fees assessed on farmers, and the funding must be used to provide research or promote products ranging from eggs and beef to popcorn and Christmas trees.

Proponents argue there is strength in numbers; checkoffs pool resources to fund advertising campaigns and research that will increase consumption of agricultural commodities, with returns on every $1 of investment reaching $18 in some cases. Checkoffs are barred from lobbying Congress, though some programs, including those for beef and pork, have contracted with lobbying groups — raising scrutiny about the relationships.

Farmers have brought numerous legal challenges against commodity checkoffs. For example, a 2001 referendum to end the pork checkoff was approved by 53 percent of the hog producers who voted, but successfully challenged in court.