There’s more to pork than the Baconpocalypse. Yes, there’s been a lot of talk about a shortage of industrially produced bacon (something I think we should all be eating less of anyway), but it doesn’t look like there will be a shortage after all. And behind the bacon-flavored hype is another pork story. This one is about corruption linked to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). And it’s a mess entirely of the agency’s own making, caused as it is by the USDA’s insistence on letting out its inner Don Draper (i.e. underwriting ad campaigns promoting American agricultural products).
Earlier this week, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) announced a lawsuit against the USDA over what it alleges was an illegal transfer of $60 million in marketing and promotion money to a political lobbying organization. It’s illegal because the marketing money, so-called “checkoff” funds, cannot by law be used for political lobbying.
Most of those “generic” food ads, like the “Got Milk” campaign and “Beef: It’s What’s For Dinner,” are funded by these checkoff programs. The USDA is involved in funding the ads since promoting agriculture is a core part of its mission. But it doesn’t do the marketing work itself — something we’re probably thankful for. Instead it hands the money off to marketing groups — most of whom tend to represent industrial practices.
Of course, HSUS — which has been working to change factory farming for years — has a dog in this fight. As the Washington Post observed, “Those millions … have helped fund the pork council’s lobbying campaigns that work to undermine the Humane Society’s efforts to, among other things, end the use of gestation crates among pork producers.” Indeed, as Grist has documented extensively, agribusiness lobbying often comes at the expense of our food system and our tax dollars.
And when lobbyists who represent the interests of industrial agriculture in all in its consolidated, factory-farmed glory are in the position to market that food to consumers, it’s a recipe for greenwashing at best and propaganda at worst.
The HSUS lawsuit goes beyond a policy battle and accuses the USDA of approving what seems a clearly illegal handover of a large pile of money. The transaction in question was between the National Pork Board (NPB), which is funded by USDA-mandated payments from pig farmers — one of many “checkoff” marketing programs. In this case, federal law requires that 0.4 percent of the sale price of every hog sold commercially goes to the National Pork Board, technically a private entity.
In 2006, the NPB sold that other classic tagline “The Other White Meat” to the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) for $60 million, to be paid in $3 million annual installments, each one USDA-approved. The problem is that the NPPC is an avowed political lobbying organization. The two pork groups claim the sale was for marketing efforts, but this might be somewhat undercut by the fact that the “Other White Meat” slogan hasn’t been used for several years — it was supplanted in early 2011 by that memorable phrase, “Pork: Be Inspired.” Payments for the transfer continue, however.
In some ways, the particulars of the lawsuit are beside the point. The pork checkoff program is only the latest to get slapped with a lawsuit. The USDA has also been sued over apparent misuse of the money from its beef checkoff program. The claim in that suit is similar to the pork suit — it accuses the USDA of lax oversight and of allowing the $80 million annual beef marketing budget to be given to a lobbying organization, in this case the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
The fact that these suits are against the USDA while the alleged misdeeds were perpetrated by private organizations is due to both marketing groups’ weird animal-human public-private hybrid status. They are, as the Washington Post puts it, “quasi-governmental” organizations.
But these checkoff programs are nothing but trouble; $600 million worth of trouble annually. Even when they’re not generating lawsuits, they’re generating bad press. You may recall that The New York Times ran a “cheese checkoff” exposé two years ago. The investigation revealed the program spent millions to get Americans eating more cheese, even to the point of funding Domino’s Pizza product development (to be cheesier, natch!), at the same time the agency was spending millions trying to reduce Americans’ consumption of high-fat foods. You know, like extra-cheesy pizza!
I’m by no means the first or the loudest critic of these USDA programs. Tufts economist (and past Grist contributor) Parke Wilde has been banging this particular drum for some time. But let me put these disparate scandals into one simple, overarching message: USDA checkoff programs have outlived their usefulness and should die a swift death.
The programs date back to the 1960s, when the federal cotton promotion program began, and they are all structured the same way. A percentage of the sale price of a commodity is collected by the federal government and transferred to an “official” marketing group. This happens whether or not an individual farmer approves of the marketing the program then funds.
It sure smells like a tax, doesn’t it? But it’s one of the few taxes the Republicans love so much they want to marry it. In all the calls from the GOP to cut the USDA budget at the expense of the hungry or of environmental conservation, the checkoff programs never seem to come up.
Given their tax-like appearance, it’s ironic that the programs really took off in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan, when the beef, eggs, dairy, and pork programs began (state versions of these programs have existed for even longer). I guess it’s because the only kind of acceptable socialism in this country is corporate socialism. Then in 1996, the USDA was given the sole authority to start a checkoff program for any commodity it wants — so we now have checkoff programs for mushrooms, watermelon, blueberries, and sorghum, among several others.
The issue isn’t whether or not these crops are worthy of promotion or marketing efforts. The plain fact is that the USDA can’t regulate the industries under its purview while it’s also trying to boost their sales. It’s one thing to promote export sales of American products but quite another to have the federal government mandating advertising and marketing of these products to Americans. Even if some of these crops don’t all involve the contradictions of cheese and pork, is there really any strong argument that the feds should be involved? Can’t these businesses take care of themselves? Or are they part of the 47 percent, too?
The trifecta of disaster at the pork, beef, and dairy checkoff programs suggests it’s time for the USDA to leave marketing and promotion to private industry — and not just to avoid legal liability and a conflicted mission. By working with single marketing organizations like the National Pork Board or the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the USDA is picking winners. No single organization can represent the interests of all farmers who sell one kind of food; even in an era of consolidation and industrialization, the system is still too complex.
The checkoff programs are an outdated and oversimplified approach to helping farmers. They are, if not rife with corruption, certainly prone to it. The USDA has enough on its plate. It’s time to clear a little space and save the heartburn.