Illegal Lobbying: It's What's for Dinner

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The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which got $51 million in checkoff funds last year, is improperly allowing some of this money to be spent on lobbying activities, according to William Neuman in Tuesday's New York Times.

Checkoff programs are administered by the USDA. They tax commodity producers to fund generic marketing campaigns (think: Milk Mustache). As I explained in my book, Food Politics:

Although the check-off legislation specifically prohibits use of the funds for lobbying, the distinction between promoting a product to consumers as opposed to promoting it to lawmakers can be subtle. Some of the boards are so closely affiliated with lobbying groups that they share office space.

For many years, the Cattlemen's Beef Promotion and Research Board (check-off organization) shared an address with the National Cattleman's Association (trade association lobbying group), and the National Pork Board (check-off) shared offices, staff, and telephone services with the National Pork Producers Council (lobbying).

Even cozier, the legislation specifies that a certain percentage of the funds must be allocated to the commodity groups responsible for nominating the board members who run the programs; these members are officially appointed by USDA.

Check-off funds are supposed to be used for research as well as advertising, but only a small fraction is used for that purpose. In the mid-1990s, eight percent of the beef check-off's $80 million or so went to research, and the rest for promotion and "information;" research percentages for dairy, egg, potato, and soybean checkoff programs were slightly higher.

Regardless of level, nearly all of the research is designed to promote the commodity. Beef check-off research is designed to "dispel negative perceptions about beef," and to develop a factual basis for viewing beef products as "part of a varied, convenient, and healthful diet" ... The great majority of the funds are spent to convince consumers to choose one type of food product over another. The Meat and Beef Boards, for example, design campaigns to build demand for red meats and meat products; encourage consumers to view beef as wholesome, versatile, and lower in cholesterol; and educate doctors, nurses, dietitians, teachers, and the media about the nutritional benefits of beef.

Checkoff programs reek of conflicts of interest. What makes this particular audit so interesting is that it was done by an outside accounting firm. Usually, these things are done internally and remain private. Chalk one up for this administration's attempt to be transparent.

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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