In 1986 congress created the commodity check-off program. The act compels producers of commodities to pay into a common pool, which is then used to “promote” said commodity.
Many foods ranging from beef, to avocados, to grapes, to eggs, to chicken, and so on, are subject to check-off regulations. I’m going to specifically address the beef check-off because it has me steamed up these days. The beef program is structured such that the money flows through a state level council which gets to retain 50% of the collection. The money is supposed to be used to support and promote the industry within the state. The other 50% flows through to a national “Beef Board” and thence to promotion programs that run nationally. You might remember the series of advertisements with the little jingle and the phrase, “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner.”* Paid for with check-off dollars. Whatever you think about that particular ad campaign, there’s a lot to dislike about the check-off generally.
For starters, the name itself indicates that it is a voluntary program, sort of like the box one chooses to “check-off” to become an organ donor or contribute $1.00 to a cause when making a larger purchase. This is not the case. It is compulsory and for each unreported sale of a bovine is subject to a $7500 fine.
Another reason to turn a jaundiced eye toward the beef check-off is the potential for corruption when what are essentially tax dollars get funnelled through a third party (the state level council) with little or no oversight. It took me only a few minutes on google to find cases that make the point - Oklahoma Check-Off corruption & Ohio Check-Off corruption.
I also dislike the program because a lot of what I see it fund is directly counter to my production practices and philosophies. The majority of what I see coming out of the national program does more to greenwash agricultural practices that I do not subscribe to than it does to educate about conscientious cattle ranching. I believe there is an enormous difference between a steer raised on my farm under good grass-fed management and a steer pushed through the industrial supply chain and hideous CAFO feedlots. Differences such as erosion, both animal and human health, air quality, development of pathogenic bacteria, etc., are too numerous to detail in this blogpost. But the implicit message the beef board puts out is that “all beef is equivalent” once it’s packed and ready for sale. Many consumers know this is a load of bull-you-know-what. Scrolling around on the website I can find images that correlate with how I raise my animals, but I can’t find a single photo of a feedlot. Being compelled to pay for greenwash advertising that serves the interests of large feedlots and multinational slaughterhouses really rubs me the wrong way.
In the interest of not running on too long, my final objection to the check-off is bigger picture. I have a beef with certain aspects of capitalism and with consumerism in general, specifically the pressure to always sell/consume more. The entire point of the check-off is to get people to eat more beef. While I stand to benefit if people choose to eat more beef produced with upstanding methods I don’t like marketing that aims to promote the concept of more is always better. How about better is better? Or enough is good and healthy? Or quality is more important than volume? I suggest that beef at every meal is not better, but to read the beef board’s copy they’d like you think it is.
I’m not opposed to a voluntary check-off. I’d gladly send a $1.00 from each sale if I saw the program working toward the type of world I want to live in, but until I see that I’m going to continue to champion change, and that’s where I have an ask of you dear readers - There are bills in both the house and congress that would make significant changes to all check-off programs. H.R. 1752 would make all check-off programs voluntary and H.R. 1753 would reform the way the boards are structured to make them more accountable and subject them to tighter auditing. I’m in favor both these bills. The corresponding Senate bills are 740 & 741. If you want to help level the playing field just a tiny bit between us small farmers and the big industrial ag corporations please call or write your representatives in support of these bills. Thank You.
* Huh, until writing it just now I never noticed how awkard that phrase is. More cogent would be, “Beef. It’s for dinner.” But saying that aloud doesn’t sound nearly as good as the way the ad agency chose to structure the advertisement, so I understand the choice they made.