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January 13, 2014

Beef Tax: It’s What’s for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner

What if every time someone acquired a dog – either through adoption from a rescue group or shelter, a purchase over the Internet or at a pet store – they paid a hidden fee on that transaction, and the entire pot of money accrued through these fees went to The HSUS? Well, I feel confident we’d do great things with the bounty, such as promoting adoption or spay-and-neuter programs, or perhaps research on canine health disorders. There would be lots of socially beneficial ways to spend the millions sent our way.

But no doubt, there would be a hue-and-cry from some parties, especially our adversaries in the puppy mill industry and other animal-use sectors. They would, to put it mildly, object that not all would-be pet owners favor our animal-welfare work. They’d add, I’m sure, that it’s wrong for dog owners to be forced to unwittingly finance a portion of the work we do.

That’s not, of course, how money comes into our organization. Everyone who donates to The HSUS does so intentionally – they send a check or give us a credit card number to show their support. Fortunately, there are millions of Americans behind us, and thanks to their generosity, we’re able to conduct a dizzying array of programs.

Cow at Black Beauty Ranch
The HSUS

Yet, the meat lobby isn’t financed through voluntary contributions from ranchers. Several major meat industry trade groups – most notably the National Pork Producers Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association – get a pork barrel of money from a mandatory fee imposed on the sale of every animal produced within their respective industries. It’s called a “check-off program,” but no producer or consumer has a choice to opt in or out. It’s like a federal tax on every one of them.

In the latest issue of Washington Monthly, reporter Siddhartha Mahanta deconstructs, in an extraordinary and lucid way, the check-off program that benefits the beef industry. “Nearly 99 percent of all the beef tax dollars collected by the government, some $45 million a year, winds up in the hands of just one group, the NCBA, which relies overwhelmingly on this public money to support itself,” he writes. “With its membership having shrunk from 40,000 in 1994 to 26,000 today,” according to Mahanta, “only 7 percent of the NCBA’s revenue comes from membership dues.” 

He continues, “Fewer and fewer actual ‘cattlemen’ belong to the organization, while more and more complain that the NCBA presses for policies that undermine their own way of life and the public’s interest by favoring large packers and other corporate giants.” 

Fred Stokes, founder of a farming group called the Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM) and a man who has seen hundreds of thousands of family farmers pushed off their land and out of agriculture partly because of NCBA’s policies favoring industrial agriculture and packing houses, says, “In being forced to pay the beef check off, cattlemen are funding their own demise.” 

The NCBA lobbies, to the chagrin of many family farmers, for packer ownership of livestock, subjecting producers to the price controls imposed by a handful of slaughtering and processing companies, such as IBP and JBS Swift. It fights country of origin labeling standards, even though Americans want to know where their beef is produced, and the information also helps retailers in crisis and recall situations.  It also advocates for federally subsidized predator control programs that kill millions of animals a year, often on our public lands. It has lobbied, for the last three years, aggressively against minimum animal welfare standards for laying hens, even though the egg industry itself favors this reform. It’s lobbying for the King amendment to the farm bill, which would nullify state animal welfare and food safety laws – against the wishes of the National Conference of State Legislatures and the National Sheriffs’ Association, among others.

NCBA claims all of the “check-off” funds are used for promoting beef eating, and not for lobbying. But animal advocates and even many rank-and-file family farmers, including those at the OCM, believe differently.

But even if these critics were wrong, and NCBA had a very precise and lawful accounting of all of its dollars, “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?” notes Mahanta. “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.”

The hypocrisy is, NCBA and so many other meat industry groups claim that The HSUS should give all of its money to animals in shelters, and forget about the other 99 percent of animals at risk, including animals used in industrial agriculture. Our promotional materials, and very specific fundraising appeals, call unmistakable attention to our campaigns against puppy mills, seal killing for fur, dogfighting, the trade in exotic pets, the slaughter of horses for human consumption, invasive experiments on chimpanzees, the extreme confinement of animals on factory farms, and other forms of mistreatment – issues our members care deeply about and give us money to tackle.

Not only are they wrong about The HSUS, but their hypocrisy, when one considers the way the group is bank-rolled, is mind-numbing.

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