WASHINGTON, Sept. 16, 2016 – The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association is looking to have a say in a lawsuit seeking to force disclosure of records that USDA gathered in an audit of the beef checkoff program.
NCBA filed a motion to intervene this week in the case originally brought in 2014 by the Organization for Competitive Markets with the help of attorneys from the Humane Society of the United States.
NCBA said some of the records involve confidential business information and that the lawsuit is an attempt by HSUS to “divert attention from beef promotion activities.”
The OCM complaint seeks disclosure of agency records from USDA’s Office of the Inspector General audit that began in 2011. That program is better known as the beef checkoff, which collects a $1 per head assessment on all live cattle sold in the U.S. to be used for research and promotion purposes.
OCM said it is trying “to get to the truth” about OIG audit. “So far it has been a five year fight to get to the truth, but we are in for the long haul. We are not going to back down until the American cowboy knows the truth,” Fred Stokes, an OCM board member, said in a release.
The group says it filed the lawsuit in 2014 because of discrepancies between an independent audit of the beef checkoff and the OIG review. OCM wasn’t satisfied with the amount of documents related to the audit that the group received from USDA under a Freedom of Information Act request.
NCBA’s relationship with the State Federation of Beef Councils – which occupies half of the seats on the committee that allocates checkoff funds – has long been a source of consternation among NCBA opponents. They claim it gives the group too much say over checkoff policies, specifically the money it distributes.
Those same opponents believe that NCBA’s relationship with the checkoff sometimes leads to the use of checkoff funds for illegal purposes, mainly NCBA’s lobbying efforts. NCBA maintains that the organization never uses checkoff funds for policy purposes.
But NCBA CEO Kendal Frazier said in a statement that OCM, HSUS “and a small handful of cattlemen have chosen a devil’s pact in an effort to weaken the checkoff, which will in turn, weaken beef demand and our entire industry.”
In a court motion filed on Tuesday, NCBA said some of the documents in question contain “NCBA’s confidential business information.”
Joe Maxwell, an OCM member and the senior political director for the Humane Society Legal Fund, feels differently. He told Agri-Pulse that NCBA, the main contractor to the beef checkoff, has had a “sweetheart deal” for years due to its influence over the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, which allocates checkoff funds.
Maxwell also made it clear that the sole plaintiff in the case is OCM; HSUS attorneys are working on the case, but he says that’s only because OCM lacks the financial wherewithal to fight such a lengthy legal battle. He said HSUS is working the case pro bono.
In an interview with Agri-Pulse, Stokes said that NCBA policies against country-of-origin labeling and changes to the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Act helped contribute to the price decline in the cattle industry. He’s skeptical of NCBA as an organization, and he says he wants to know how checkoff funds have been used.
“If there was no wrongdoing here, why would NCBA be so frantic in trying to protect it?” Stokes said. “Give us the damn truth. That’s all.”
Frazier says that OCM and HSUS may assert that the case is about transparency in the beef checkoff, but he believes the Humane Society is using it to undermine the beef industry.
“HSUS intends to put every cattleman and woman in America out of business,” Frazier said. “By weakening checkoff programs and damaging producer-directed marketing and promotion efforts, they can cause economic harm to our industry and force us out of production agriculture.”
“We have nothing to hide. We have, and will continue to fully cooperate with all reviews and audits of our contracting activities,” he added. “However, we will not stand idly by and allow HSUS to kill the checkoff.”
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