Standing in front of a 50-foot tall display of potatoes, mushrooms, beef jerky, and other agricultural products at the 2009 All-American Farm Expo in Modesto, CA recently, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recalled his recent trip to Idaho — America's land of potatoes — and his shock at hearing that many people thought that the Potato Board was some sort of new high-tech building material made from spuds. "I was just amazed," he said, "that even in Idaho many people don't know about the great work being done by the National Potato Board to promote their state's No. 1 agricultural product."
Visack proposed the formation of a USDA Promotion Board Promotion Board. "Our nation's farmers need all the help they can get in these tough times," he said, "And one of the best ways is through better promotion of their products. Teaching the public about this nation's promotion boards is one way to do that."
Vilsack hopes that the Promotion Board Promotion Board will increase public awareness of the National Potato Promotion Board, the Popcorn Board, the National Pork Board, and the other 14 Congressionally mandated boards. The "PBPB" will be made up of representatives from each of the currently active promotion boards as well as executives from the nation's top advertising agencies. USDA officials will serve in an advisory capacity.
In case it's not obvious, the above "news" is satire — we know of no plans for a Promotion Board Promotion Board. But the USDA promotion boards, or "Check-off Programs" as they are known, are a serious matter. Congressional mandates require that producers of 17 different commodities must legally give a set portion of their revenue to the appropriate board, which then spends the funds to promote the product and fund research. Research dollars can be aimed at improving food safety, developing new products, or even learning how to convince people to buy more of their goods or to "dispel negative perceptions" about the product, as Marion Nestle's book "Food Politics" detailed.
Big bucks are involved. A 2007 report from the Congressional Research Service (via OpenCRS) provided the following expenditure figures for 2005:
Beef, $80.4 million; cotton, $83.6 million; dairy products, $278.7 million; eggs, $20.2 million; fluid milk, $107.1 million; peanuts, $6.7 million; pork, $60.8 million; potatoes, $8.7 million; and soybeans, $82.8 million.
On the one hand, pooling resources allows big budget advertising — like the famous milk mustache and "The Other White Meat" campaigns in national media outlets — that most small producers or even most co-ops could never manage on their own. There is a good economic argument for mandatory contributions, because generic advertisements theoretically benefit all producers. However, because the boards are funded by assessments based on sales quantity, those who contribute the most inevitably have the most influence on the boards' direction, regardless of whether their products are good for all their farmer constituents, not to mention the country or public health.
The monolith is starting to crack slightly, however. The pork board has a Niche Pork committee that focuses on heritage breeds, free range, and other alternative hog farming practices. And the rules provide an exemption for farmers whose land is fully USDA certified organic. This escape route is welcome, but not available to the many farmers who aim to follow a more sustainable path without seeking certification.
The programs have not always been squeaky clean. The U.S. Food Policy blog has documented strange election procedures at the Pork Board, allegations of misuse of soybean funds, and some funny business in the multi-million dollar sale of the "Other White Meat" slogan from a private entity to the quasi-public National Pork Board. Numerous lawsuits have sought to shut down the boards or allow farmers to opt out, but each one has been unsuccessful, as a report from the Congressional Research Service (via OpenCRS).
Recent academic research suggests that the boards are one of the many contributors to obesity by pushing consumption of high-energy-dense products like pork and dairy. A 2008 working paper (PDF, via Ezra Klein) by professors John Cawley (Cornell) and Barret Kirwan (University of Maryland, College Park) provides some examples:
Check-off funds are also used to increase the sale of commodities through fast-food outlets. The Pork Board’s 2003 Checkoff Timeline Brochure reports: “1989: Technology developed with producer Checkoff funds is used by McDonald’s nationally to market The McRib pork sandwich.” It continues: “2002: Through the Pork Checkoff, pork items are added to menus at Taco Bell, T.G.I. Friday’s, McDonald’s, Burger King, Applebee’s and other restaurants across America”. A press release from the Dairy Checkoff program touts their success providing Pizza Hut with menu development and market research in bringing to market the Insider Pizza, which uses one pound of cheese per pizza.
The biggest food checkoff programs — pork, beef, and dairy — were established in the mid-1980s, long before organic was mainstream, before pastured and grass-fed started to make their comebacks. Might it be time for serious reorganization of the boards, so that farmers who are interested in sustainability, or premium quality — for example, hogs that have not had so much fat bred out of them so that their meat resembles chicken — to break away from the CAFOs and pure-commodity farms, and get more of a say in where their check-off dollars go, or even escape the program itself?