Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Federal government's beef checkoff program buys advertising to discourage grocers from stocking plant-based alternatives

The federal government's beef checkoff program this week is running advertisements in GroceryDive, a trade news site, targeting grocery retailers with claims that disparage new plant-based alternatives.

"Despite the placement of beef substitutes in the meat case," the ad says, "these products aren’t generating sales like the authentic beef products they share the case with." 

Yet, a savvy reader may think the ad itself indicates a high level of concern among beef checkoff program leaders.

The beef checkoff program is a public-private partnership, managed by a board appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture and funded by a mandatory assessment on beef producers, using the federal government's power of taxation. Checkoff marketing campaigns must be approved in writing by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). Checkoff advertisements to promote beef have legal status as "government speech," just like government public interest messages to promote public health.

Earlier this year, Republican Sen. Mike Lee (UT) and Democratic Sen. Cory Booker (NJ) re-introduced their legislation, the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act of 2019 (OFF Act), which would make several reforms in federal checkoff programs:
  • Prevent checkoff programs from contracting with organizations that lobby. The current practice has an unseemly circularity, as the federal government enforces the collection of checkoff money, which then goes to industry organizations that lobby (mostly but not entirely with non-checkoff dollars) to influence federal regulatory and marketing policies;
  • Require transparency through publication of checkoff program budgets and expenditures; and
  • Establish standards that prohibit anti-competitive behavior, such as using federal checkoff money to disparage other legitimate American food businesses in the marketplace, as the GroceryDive advertisement did this week.
These reforms seem reasonable to me.

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