Consumers are probably familiar with the popular catch-phrases like “got milk?” or “Pork: the other white meat” from countless advertising campaigns. However, most people are probably unaware that these campaigns are essentially brought to you by Congress. These specific advertisement campaigns related to food are an aspect of commodity checkoff programs which are supervised by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Various federal laws dating back to the 1970s, 80s, and 90s allow for the creation of research and promotion boards for different commodities. The boards are overseen by the Agricultural Marketing Service in the USDA and have authority to assess fees, known as checkoffs, on all producers within the industry. These funds are then used to fund research related to that commodity. The councils of these checkoff programs also use that money for promotion and advertising, resulting in the memorable slogans of advertising campaigns. The USDA approves the boards’ budgets, assessments, and plans and issues these orders regulatory rules. USDA has the authority within these checkoff programs to levy late-payment and interest charges on producers who fail to remit an assessment. With this government backing, the fees are as obligatory as taxes.
Checkoff programs have also been growing in number. In 2011, NTUF counted 18 checkoffs. USDA now lists a total of 22 checkoff programs for eggs, lamb, pecans, beef, Christmas trees, cotton, milk, avocado, blueberries, mushrooms, dairy, honey, mango, peanut, pork, potato, watermelon, paper, popcorn, lumber, sorghum, and soybeans. That number of covered products may increase further if the proposed Natural Grass Sod Research and Promotion Program is approved by an industry referendum.
There are also checkoffs managed by other federal departments. There is a Concrete Masonry Checkoff managed by the Department of Commerce created by law in 2018. Other important checkoff programs exist in the oil and gas industry as well, known as the Propane Education and Research Council (PERC) and the National Oilheat Research Alliance (NORA). However, in contrast to agricultural checkoff programs, the Government Accountability Office has noted in the past that PERC and NORA only receive limited oversight by the Department of Energy, as opposed to the heavy involvement of the USDA in its checkoffs.
Although checkoff programs have grown, they have still had their fair share of concerns regarding accountability. Cattle ranchers continue to push for reform of the checkoff programs because they don’t believe the programs are fulfilling their original purpose of funding research surrounding cattle and beef production. Many independent ranchers also have concerns with the checkoffs because while they fund the checkoffs at a steep price of membership, they don’t reap the benefits of the program. Instead, the meatpacking industry gleans profit.
Checkoff programs often prove to be controversial within their respective industries. As these programs have plenty of funding and a wide range of support throughout the industry, checkoffs prove to be tough giants that other smaller organizations are forced to deal with. The Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF USA) has been steeped in a series of lawsuits since 2019 against the USDA over what they believe to be excessive federal involvement in their industry and livelihoods.
These programs also face criticism for their lack of budgetary transparency and public disclosure. The president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association’s (NCBA) salary of almost $500,000 is nearly 72 percent of the association’s funds. It also does not help matters that the members in the NCBA account for a mere 4% of cattle farmers.
NTUF wrote in 2016 about how any checkoff program — regardless of industry — should not force participation, but instead be voluntary due to the membership fees and taxes that could be levied across an industry.
Proposed reform legislation would increase transparency and create equal opportunity for membership in these programs. The Opportunities for Fairness in Farming (OFF) Act would increase transparency and accountability to checkoff programs managed by the US Department of Agriculture. This legislation was designed to try to solve budgetary mismanagement and promote integrity in contracts, imposing restrictions on previously unchecked checkoff programs.
The OFF Act has been introduced in both chambers of Congress with bipartisan support. In the House, H.R. 4291 is sponsored by Dina Titus (D-NV), Nancy Mace (R-SC), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Tony Cardenas (D-CA), and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). In the Senate, S. 2861 is sponsored by Mike Lee (R-UT), Rand Paul (R-KY), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY). The OFF Act would help level the playing field and create equal market opportunities for all farmers, and enjoys the support of the Agricultural Fairness Alliance.
The fact that members of both parties have recognized the need for reform of checkoffs is a strong indication that the programs are long overdue for oversight. Hopefully, Congress will take this bipartisan legislation seriously because these programs have already encountered enough mismanagement. The members of these checkoff programs need the government to aid their efforts of encouraging public disclosure, supporting small farmers, and promoting direct and honest contracts.