Saturday, April 30, 2016

Checkoff program supporters seek to shield checkoff boards from freedom-of-information scrutiny

Here is a small example of Washington at its worst.

The Capital Press reports this week that several agriculture commodity organizations have successfully lobbied members of Congress to include a provision in the House agricultural appropriations bill that would protect the federal government's "checkoff" commodity promotion boards from public records disclosure requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Through these programs, the federal government uses its taxation powers to enforce the collection of more than $500 million each year in mandatory assessments on commodity producers, to be spent on campaigns such as "Got Milk" and "Pork. Be Inspired."

Because these semi-public programs are established by Congress and the commodity boards are appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture, they have always been subject to freedom-of-information rules. It stands to reason: farmers and the public deserve to know what's really going on with these well-funded USDA-sponsored programs.

As a reminder, or for new readers, here is the story of how this U.S. Food Policy blog used FOIA to get information about the dubious $60 million sale of the "Other White Meat" slogan from the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) to the National Pork Board (NPB). We concluded that this sale -- for a slogan that now is nearly worthless and has been replaced by "Be Inspired" -- really was just a way for the checkoff program to funnel money to the NPPC.

Our investigation is exactly the type of public interest research the new bill is designed to prevent. The House appropriations bill language reads as follows:
“The funding used to operate and carry out the activities of the various research and promotion programs is provided by producers and industry stakeholders, and employees on the boards are not federal employees. Therefore, the committee urges USDA to recognize that such boards are not subject to the provisions of 5 U.S.C. Section 552 (the Freedom of Information Act).”
Let people know what you think about this.


Anonymous said...

Likewise we should have free and open access to all information and data relating to certified organics, from farmers to retailers to consumers, since it is a USDA supported program. By the same reasoning we also should have free and open access to all information and data relating to anyone and any entity with any affiliation whatsoever to SARE grants and outcomes of those grants at any time -- another U.S. government supported program, you see. Witch hunts should definitely be equal opportunity, no?

Parke Wilde said...

Anonymous makes an excellent point. The freedom-of-information rules should apply equally to checkoff programs just as they already do for organic certification programs.

An organic farmer already has the right to file a FOIA request for information about USDA's organic certification program. For example, when people are nominated for the National Organic Standards Board, USDA already informs them that their nomination materials are subject to FOIA rules and may be made public subject to a proper request.

If an Iowa pork producer, who is forced by the government to pay a mandatory assessment to a checkoff board, seeks information about the operation of that checkoff board, he ought to have the right to do likewise.

Anonymous said...

What groups support this kind of legislation? Obviously the checkoff programs themselves favor this outcome, but who else has skin in the game?

Parke Wilde said...

Many leading commodity industries have a pair of associations: (a) a government-established checkoff program that taxes producers using the force of law, and (b) a private-sector trade association that is funded by a combination of voluntary individual dues plus earnings from contract work for the checkoff program.

For example, the National Pork Board (NPB) is a checkoff program, the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) is a trade association, and the NPPC makes millions of dollars each year in contract work for the NPB (plus it gets $3million each year in payments for the "other white meat" slogan, which is a whole other story). Although checkoff money may not be used for lobbying, the NPPC is legally allowed to lobby for checkoff board interests, and does so vigorously.

The Beef Board is a checkoff program, two trade associations are the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) and R-Calf. The NCBA makes tens of millions of dollars each year in contract work for the Beef Board (and is a huge lobbyist for checkoff board interests), while R-Calf does not get checkoff money and does not lobby on behalf of checkoff board interests.

Each of the trade associations that lobby by proxy on behalf of checkoff board interests also spread the wealth among a large number of other players, including researchers, who typically do not loudly support checkoff interests, but who are generally discrete, polite, and reluctant to say anything critical.