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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

At the heart of the new alliance sits Joe Maxwell, a hog farmer and former lieutenant governor of Missouri. In 2011, the Humane Society hired Maxwell to work with independent farmers and teach members of the animal rights community that their interests and those of the ranchers are one and the same—sustainability, animal welfare, and resistance to the continued monopolization of agriculture by giant agribusiness. Recently, the Humane Society has been providing legal assistance to the Organization for Competitive Markets, a group representing independent ranchers and farmers that has been working to terminate the NCBA’s control over the beef checkoff progam.

In doing so, they have picked up the support of Dudley Butler, a lawyer appointed to the USDA by Obama in 2009 but who left in 2012. “This administration is well aware that the NCBA has misappropriated producer contributions,” Butler wrote in a letter to the president last year. “The administration is also aware that the NCBA’s control over the beef checkoff program has helped it and the meat packers defeat major policy reforms sought by independent producers.” Butler’s solution is simple: stop collecting the beef tax.

Even in this era of political gridlock, that may just be possible. In 2012, before leaving to head up the Heritage Foundation, Tea Party firebrand Senator Jim DeMint attached an amendment to the farm bill that would make all the checkoff programs voluntary. Writing in support of the amendment, the Heritage Foundation blasted the checkoff as a flat-out compulsory tax—not an unusual stance for a movement committed to zeroing out government involvement in private enterprise.

With liberals and conservatives for once in agreement, it’s time to have a barbeque. Big Beef subsidies. It’s what’s for dinner.

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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