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Both the Beef and the Pork Check-Off

by Martha Stevens,
Hatfield, Missouri

Martha Stevens is livestock farmer who lives and farms near Hatfield, Missouri. This article is part of an ongoing series by Martha Stevens - Straight Talk - commenting on the life and politics of farming in Missouri and the U.S. as a whole.

Do we need a beef and/or pork checkoff referendum vote? Have the $$$ taken from the farmer’s pocket in he form of checkoff funds been a good investment?

The discontent among beef producers regarding the checkoff, says the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC), is fueled by the NCBA’s support of NAFTA, GATT, captive supplies, and a corporatized, globalized beef industry. Created by the USDA via the Beef Promotion and Research Act, there is no provision for a regular vote of producers to ensure that the funds are not used for policies that those producers do not support or to ensure that it is working for those producers as intended. Hence, the call for a vote.

Listening to the NCBA/National Cattlemen’s Beef Board and/or the NPPC/National Pork Board, you would think that those millions of $$$ going from your pocket to theirs is doing its job: increasing consumption. NOT!!

There are 1,212,110 cattle producers in the U.S. of which 40,000 are members of the NCBA. Despite this small showing in actual membership, the NCBA dips into every cattle producer’s pocket on a regular basis.

Information from WORC indicates that the "Beef! It’s what’s for dinner" play just isn’t working. Perhaps because most of the checkoff $$$ are being used for overhead and salaries. (Monte Reese, CEO of the Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion Board receives a hefty $140,000 plus benefits and bonus) Since 1985, the beef checkoff has netted the NCBA a cool $874 million, yet beef consumption has dropped by 15% and the cattleman’s share of the beef retail dollar is down by 21%.

Ah, but the pork checkoff is really effective, you say? Sorry, folks, that’s not what the numbers show. About the best thing I could confirm about pork consumption is that it has maintained the status quo over the past 10 years.

Despite over $100 million spent on ad campaigns pushing pork, U.S. pork consumption has remained constant. And while Michael J. Simpson, CEO of the National Pork Board (annual salary $100,000 plus benefits and bonus) points to pork as "the other white meat" and claims it has become the meat of choice, the reality is that pork is still perceived by the general public (in the U.S.) as primarily a breakfast meat, and not a basic entree~ for dinner. It is, however, a mainstay for Asians and Latinos, accounting for much of the export demand it has enjoyed in recent years, and for the price collapse when those countries cut back on purchases! As to the future, Severin Johnson (Successful Farming) predicts that the increasing vertical integration of the pork industry may well be heading for a battle with poultry that is likely to be fought on the issue of price, with quality of product, secondary.

Given the high cost of bureaucracy, it is not surprising that most of the checkoff $$$ from both pork and beef goes for administrative costs and salaries, not promotion (Remember the use of pork checkoff funds to investigate other farm groups and organizations?).

And the beef checkoff can really pack it in. It is not a matter of 1 calf, $1. It can be, and often is, a fact that one calf delivers $3 to the NCBA coffers in the form of checkoff funds. Sold as a weanling, a calf yields for the NCBA, $ 1; same calf sold as a feeder, another $1; sold as a slaughter animal, another $1. And the NCBA has shown a real propensity for choosing the wrong spokesperson for it’s promotional efforts. Who could forget the Cybill Shepherd fiasco when it was revealed that she was a confirmed vegetarian?

Generic beef and pork promotion--the main purpose of the checkoff--has not worked as intended. Nothing is "trickling down" to the producer. It is apparent there is something very wrong here. Why should the farmer, who is at the bottom of the ladder hoping for a little "trickle-down," bear the cost of promoting a product that the packers, recording record profits, do not share?

Today’s Quote: "Take care to get what you like, or you will be forced to like what you get."--George Bernard Shaw

Data Sources: Iowa State University, Successful Farming, MO Ruralist, WORC

Published in In Motion Magazine - April 10, 1999

Also read other essays by Martha Stevens