“Got Milk?,” “Pork: The Other White Meat,” “The Incredible Edible Egg,” “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner” – in recent years these slogans have become staples of American advertising. What few citizens understand, however, is that these seemingly innocuous ad campaigns are part of a massive tax system that gathers some $700 million per year, and distributes that money to some of the most powerful business groups in food and farming.
The programs that collect these taxes are known among farmers as “checkoff” programs. They require farmers to pay a certain percentage of their harvest into a national fund, which in theory is supposed to be used to promote the consumption of commodities like pork, beef, eggs, and milk. The current beef checkoff, for instance, requires ranchers to pay $1 per head of cattle into the fund. A board comprised of industry stakeholders then decides how to spend the funds.
The first checkoff tax program dates to 1966, and was used to promote the use of cotton. Since then, the USDA has approved 22 checkoff programs, including for beef and pork in 1985, watermelons in 1989, and mushrooms in 1990. In 1996, the Commodity Promotion, Research, and Information Act standardized the process by which checkoff programs are created and implemented.
These tax programs have long been controversial in the farming community. Many small farmers oppose mandatory checkoff taxes because they believe the funds disproportionately serve the interests of large-scale, corporate producers. As many sectors of the agricultural economy continue to be dominated by just a few powerful growers, small farmers are left paying into a fund that, in the case of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association for instance, spends much of its time lobbying for the political interests of giant corporations. And this issue isn’t just in the purview of conventional farming – many farmers also have objected to a recent proposal to launch an organic checkoff tax program.
Over the years, groups of farmers have tried to reform or eliminate the checkoffs. In 2000, during the last year of the Clinton Administration, more than 30,000 pork farmers voted 53% to 47% to end their checkoff program. Following that vote, then-Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman ordered an end to the pork checkoff. However, the National Pork Producers Council, which then managed the checkoff, challenged the results of the vote. In 2001, following the election of George W. Bush, Secretary of Agriculture Ann Venemen reinstated the program.
In August 2015, the Humane Society of the United States won a victory against the pork checkoff. A Washington D.C. federal court ruled that HSUS has could move forward with a lawsuit against the National Pork Board’s payment of $60 million per year in checkoff tax funds to the National Pork Producer’s Council, an industry trade group that lobbies for the interests of giant agricultural corporations. According to the court ruling, the plaintiffs now have standing to “allege that the Board used the purchase of the slogan as a means to cut a sweetheart deal with the Council to keep the Council in business and support its lobbying efforts.”
Parts of this essay are excerpted from “Got Organic?” by Leah Douglas, originally published in Slate.