Tuesday, March 25, 2014
|(graphic: High Country News)
Each year a trade group representing the beef industry collects more than $40 million in tax dollars to promote its agenda and battle political opponents. It’s an unusual arrangement, considering that most lobbying organizations rely on private funding to fund their activities.
It all began in the 1980s, during efforts to help the plight of farmers who were struggling to stay in business. Legislation adopted by Congress that decade created the beef “check-off” program, in which cattle ranchers were forced to pay $1 per head to state beef councils. These councils in turn give money to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which winds up distributing around $40 million annually to promoting the beef industry.
The recipient of this promotional money is the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), which buys ads to encourage Americans to eat more beef and pays lobbyists to fight off efforts by animal rights groups and others advocating policies the NCBA opposes.
The NCBA has over time lost many of its cattlemen members, “while more and more complain that the NCBA presses for policies that undermine their own way of life and the public’s interest by favoring large packers and other corporate giants,” according to Siddhartha Mahanta at the Washington Monthly. Four large corporations—Cargill, Tyson Foods, JBS, and National Beef Packing—now control 85% of the meat-packing business.
Mahanta reports that the organization’s membership has declined markedly, from 40,000 in 1994 to 26,000 today. As a result, more than 90% of its funding comes not from membership dues, but public money. Without the check-off money, rancher Steve Charter said, the NCBA “would have a pretty tough time keeping going.”
Its lobbying activities include fighting proposals that are overwhelmingly supported by the American people. For instance, the NCBA has joined a lawsuit involving other trade groups representing meat-packers seeking to block the USDA’s plan requiring the industry to label meat being sold so consumers know if it is coming from within the U.S. or other countries.
This strategy runs counter to what most consumers want. A 2013 poll by the Consumer Federation of America revealed that 87% of respondents favored mandatory country-of-origin labeling for beef, and 90% support a mandate for food producers to disclose whether the beef was processed domestically.