HSUS and NCBA square off over beef checkoff audits

In an ongoing lawsuit filed on October 2014 by the Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM) against USDA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) has recently announced its involvement to intervene after being made aware attorneys for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) filed on behalf of the plaintiff.

OCM, a non-profit alliance group which brings organizations together on antitrust laws and fair competition, includes members such as HSUS, R-CALF USA and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, is seeking for findings in audits by the Inspector General on the beef checkoff program and it’s contractors to be published after finding them firewalled. In an interview with Drovers, Matthew Penzer, special counsel for HSUS says the group initially filed a complaint in 2014 after an independent audit and the OIG audit on the beef checkoff were conflicting. Upon a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, thousands of pages were released, but much of it was heavily redacted, he says.

“We are not going to back down until the American cowboy knows the truth,” Fred Stokes, OCM board member says in an online statement after NCBA announced its involvement. “This desperate move to block the public’s right to know is to be expected.”

According to NCBA, a contractor of the beef checkoff, audits done at random by the USDA and the two OIG audits listed in the lawsuit found contractors to be in compliance with the law in appropriate use of the beef checkoff funds, and while they cooperated with FOIA requests, some of the documents contained confidential business information.

NCBA CEO Kendal Frazier says the cooperation hasn’t satisfied HSUS or OCM, and that this is an attempt by HSUS to take a shot at the U.S. beef industry to “open old wounds.”

“Instead of working to better our industry, these two organizations 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,” Frazier says. “They will attempt to make this about transparency and say they’re undertaking this effort on behalf of producers. But let’s be clear: HSUS intends to put every cattleman and woman in America out of business. 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.”

In response for HSUS, Penzer says it was initially asked to be involved since it had experience in dealing with checkoff matters, and all the organization wants is for there to be transparency in the use of producer money in a government program.

“Checkoff programs do a lot of good or a lot of harm,” Penzer says in regards to the impact on family farmers and the environment. “If NCBA suggests that transparently is going to kill an industry, then we have a much bigger issue,” Penzer says. “Transparency makes a government program stronger, not weaker. It’s not too much to ask for.”

While additional audits have been done over the beef checkoff program showing contractors in compliance since the initial complaint, neither side plan on backing off.

“We have nothing to hide. We have, and will continue to fully cooperate with all reviews and audits of our contracting activities,” Frazier says. “However, we will not stand idly by and allow HSUS to kill the checkoff.”