Thursday, September 14, 2017

Where are the dairy checkoff reports to Congress?

The fluid milk and dairy checkoff programs are required by law each year to submit a Report to Congress. But these reports have gone missing since 2012.

Under the federal government's authority, the public-private checkoff programs collect several hundred million dollars each year in mandatory assessments from dairy producers, to be used for industry projects and marketing initiatives such as "milk mustache" posters, "Got Milk" ads, Domino's and Pizza Hut marketing partnerships, and other fast food industry collaborations. The USDA reports play a key role in transparency for these federal programs.

The most recent report on USDA's website is the 2013 report covering the 2012 checkoff activities and budgets. When the annual reports stopped appearing, I assumed USDA had simply delayed sharing them on the website. This blog first pointed out their absence in 2015, more than two years ago. Finally, in answer to my Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request this summer, USDA told me in July that it would not share any documents, because the department had never published the reports or submitted them to Congress as required.

This morning, the lead story by Catherine Boudreau for Politico's Morning Agriculture covers this issue.
The Agriculture Department hasn't published legally required annual financial reports on a $400 million dairy research and promotional fund for the past four years, lending ammunition to farmers and other groups pushing for more transparency in checkoff programs.
A USDA spokeswoman told POLITICO the reports on the dairy checkoff are in the final clearance stage and should be posted within the month. The 2016 report is still in the works, she added. But the agency declined to explain the yearslong delay. In July, USDA turned down a Freedom of Information Act request for the documents from a Tufts University professor, saying that it had no records to send because the reports hadn't been published.
One of the best things about the annual reports, when they were still being published, was the independent evaluations by leading agricultural economists such as Harry Kaiser at Cornell and Oral Capps and Gary Williams at Texas A & M. At the 2016 annual meeting for AAEA, Kaiser and I organized a lively discussion of checkoff programs and nutrition.

The Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM), which advocates for reform of checkoff programs, also wrote about this today. The OCM points out that former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack now is the CEO of the checkoff-funded U.S. Dairy Export Council.

I share the view of others quoted in the Politico article, suggesting that Congress should strengthen oversight over these programs and make both their finances and activities more transparent.

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