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January/ February 2014 Big Beef

Independent ranchers and animal rights activists don’t agree about much, except that it’s time to stop using federal tax dollars to support the meat lobby.

By Siddhartha Mahanta

Regardless of how the final report turns out, the scandal here doesn’t necessarily involve illegality or how the books are kept, but rather what the law itself allows. Would you be happy if the government gave the National Rifle Association a dollar for every gun sold in the United States on condition that the NRA spend the money strictly for promoting the use of guns and no other purposes? Perhaps you would, but either way, such a flow of public money would without a doubt make the NRA more powerful in everything it did, and with the inherent complicity of the government. If nothing else, the NRA could put the money toward covering its current overhead costs, thereby freeing up resources for other purposes, like, say, opposing background checks.

Conservatives often make a similar charge against Planned Parenthood. They complain that the government funding the organization receives for delivering health services to women, like cancer screenings, increases its capacity to provide services generally, including abortions, even though by statute those dollars can’t be spent directly on abortions. Regardless of your cause, whether it’s gun rights or family planning, it’s nice when Uncle Sam writes you a check.

And in the case of the NCBA, the degree of subsidy is particularly extreme. With its membership having shrunk from 40,000 in 1994 to 26,000 today, only 7 percent of the NCBA’s revenue comes from membership dues. That means that most of the cost of its overhead, from the $434,477 it paid its chief executive in 2010 to the cost of keeping the lights on and maintaining its Web site, comes from public money. As such, the comingling of its public money with lobbying activity is inherent and of great value. If the NCBA didn’t have those checkoff funds, says rancher Steve Charter, “they would have a pretty tough time keeping going.” Put another way, without the public money it receives, the NCBA might not even exist, and certainly would not have the lobbying clout it has today.

As it is, the NCBA uses its power to lobby on a broad range of issues besides meat labeling that benefit meat-packers and other concentrated interests in agriculture. Most dramatic has been its successful effort to sabotage the Obama administration’s high-profile campaign to use antitrust law to limit the power of the big packers.

During the initial stages of the antitrust review, the NCBA laid low, saying little over the course of 2010 when the administration held five big hearings on concentration in livestock, dairy, and other agricultural sectors. But once the ranchers and other farmers had returned home, the NCBA hit hard, starting with a full-page ad in the Dubuque Telegraph Herald in August of 2011, timed to run when the president was in town for an economic summit. The ad claimed that the administration’s effort to enforce antitrust law would kill 114,000 jobs across the country, cost Iowa’s economy over $630 million, and send food prices up by $46 million in the first year alone. “That’s something this country and Iowa just can’t afford,”┬áthe ad read.

The NCBA also assembled talking points for Big Ag’s allies in Congress to help them oppose the administration’s efforts. The result: in the heat of the 2010 midterm campaign, 115 lawmakers wrote to the USDA requesting that the agency perform a more rigorous analysis of the reforms in an effort to stymie them. Ultimately, the NCBA’s friends in the House voted to defund the USDA’s ability to enforce the reforms, at which point the agency abandoned the effort.

The NCBA’s assault on agriculture reformers also includes attacks on activists and writers who promote alternative, non-corporate forms of farming and ranching. For instance, according to the Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, and Mother Jones, the NCBA’s “masters of beef advocacy” program has trained more than 2,000 students and farmers to use Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to target people like author Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and other books on the food supply. As one young master of beef advocacy explained in a 2010 interview with Mother Jones, Pollan’s really the “enemy right now.”

The NCBA also does not hesitate to crack down on the free speech and eating habits of government workers who dare to go a day without beef. Last August, the NCBA unleashed an assault on USDA staffers who had sent around a newsletter encouraging their colleagues to participate in “Meatless Monday,” a well-regarded program run by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health to promote healthy living. “This move by USDA should be condemned,” NCBA president J. D. Alexander said, “by anyone who believes agriculture is fundamental to sustaining life on this planet.” Their allies on the Hill supported the assault: Iowa Republican lawmakers Chuck Grassley and Steve King took to Twitter to gleefully double down on their personal commitment to eat meat. Cowed, the USDA revoked its support for Meatless Monday.

More disturbing is the support of the NCBA’s state affiliates for what’s known as “ag gag” laws. These measures make it a felony in a growing number of states to gather information on inhumane and unsafe practices on farms and processing plants, even prohibiting taking photographs of the facilities from nearby roads or other public property.

The NCBA has also worked tirelessly to prevent states from acting on popular demand for higher standards in the treatment of animals. In 2010, for example, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law mandating that eggs could not be brought in or sold in the state unless they came from hens housed in humane facilities. The NCBA threw itself behind federal legislation, sponsored in reaction to the law by Representative King, that prohibits California and other states from imposing any conditions on the import of food produced beyond their borders. In an op-ed published in June, King singled out the staff of the NCBA for their “tireless efforts” in promoting the measure, boasting that it would offer a stiff rebuke to the Humane Society and its fellow “radical animal rights organizations.”

The NCBA reliably attacks the Humane Society even when doing so puts it crosswise with other Big Ag interests. In 2011, the Humane Society came together with the United Egg Producers, an organization representing the ownership of approximately 95 percent of the nation’s egg-laying hens, to work toward enactment of federal egg production standards. The NCBA slammed the deal, stating that “[c]attlemen are rightfully concerned” that the agreement would “seek unprecedented federal legislation to mandate on-farm production standards.” The bill never made it out of committee.

The NCBA’s hostility to the Humane Society also puts it at odds with many independent ranchers. To be sure, ranchers and animal rights activists have stood for decades on almost entirely opposite sides of all farming issues. But that is changing, as consumer awareness and concern grows over the ethical and public health issues raised by confined animal feeding operations and other forms of industrial agriculture. Ranchers who treat their animals well want the public to know their story, and don’t want to be forced to subsidize a trade group that vilifies their potential customers as animal rights “radicals.”

Siddhartha Mahanta writes about systemic fragility and our food system at the New America Foundation. His work has also appeared in Mother Jones, the New Republic, and other publications.

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