Reading Between the Lines

 by Lee Pitts

On his way out the door to take a job with the Cowboy Hall of Fame, former NCBA CEO, Chuck Schroeder, had this to say to the NCBA leadership gathered in Denver:

“While some ill-intentioned, ill-informed, vile spirited political junk merchants attacked the beef checkoff, while they attacked the NCBA and, of even greater concern to me, they attacked the honorable men and women who lead this organization, while they stoop to any level of chicanery and untruth to smear our reputation and mislead others about who we are and what we do, while people with their own barrels of ink spew that poison, the most popular President of the United States in modern history, the First Lady, the Secretary of Agriculture, several leading elected officials from the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, and by the way, the governor of our own state, showed up at your house yesterday to say that “We are with you, we are with you.”

At this newspaper we wouldn´t want to stoop “to any level of chicanery and untruth to smear NCBA´s reputation,” and we certainly would not want to mislead others about who the NCBA represents or where they stand on the issues.

“While They Stoop To Any Level of Chicanery”

So let´s set the record straight about mandatory country of origin labeling. In a unified effort seldom seen in agriculture nearly 100 organizations got behind an R-CALF inspired effort to place a mandatory country of origin labeling law into the Farm Bill. The bill would require a “Made In USA” label be placed on all domestically produced beef, lamb, pork, fish, fruits, vegetables and peanuts. In the case of beef the label would state that the beef was raised, born and slaughtered in this country.

Despite widespread support from state cattlemen´s associations the NCBA, at their most recent convention, voted down mandatory country of origin labeling. They knew this position would not go over well in cattle country so they played fast and loose with the English language and tried to make the case that NCBA “passed a resolution supporting voluntary origin labeling.” Now, if you were asleep at the switch and read that statement you might think the NCBA supported country of origin labeling. But read the statement again and you´ll find they are in favor of VOLUNTARY country of origin labeling, which is what we already have. Their word games to the contrary, the NCBA is specifically against MANDATORY country of origin labeling!

In an effort to further confuse you an NCBA press release read: “The final vote was overwhelmingly in support of a labeling policy that allowed producers and the industry to work together to give consumers the information they desire when purchasing beef.” With apologies to Mr. Schroeder, that last statement is a bald faced lie! NCBA´s resolution ensures that consumers WILL NOT get the information they desire when purchasing beef because the NCBA resolution calls for leaving things the way they are and that means NO country of origin labeling. You don´t see packers putting “Made in USA” labels on their meat now, so why are they going to change without being forced to?

To further prove that the NCBA is stooping to what we´d call “any level of chicanery,” NCBA´s Chief Lobbyist, Chuck Lambert, said in referring to NCBA´s action: “The resolution of the debate on the issue of country of origin labeling is evidence that producer directed policy development works.” He continued, “NCBA´s members clearly indicated their desire to manage and control the labeling of beef, an industry directed market driven approach to labeling is preferential to a government mandated system.”

So, Lambert says the NCBA doesn´t like government mandated systems, right? That´s what he said. If that is the case why has the NCBA attempted in a stealth-like and conniving manner to ask Congress for more government control of your industry?

Please read on, you may have missed this next bit of news.

“Mislead Others About Who We Are And What We Do”

The National Cattlemen´s Beef Association, National Pork Producers Council and the National Milk Producers Federation are attempting to circumvent pending litigation challenging the constitutionality of commodity checkoff programs in a “back door” effort to insert language into the federal Farm Bill establishing checkoff programs as “government speech.” They need such action to keep the checkoff cash in case they lose in court.

According to the LMA, “The commodity groups are attempting to get the government speech language into the House-Senate Conference Committee´s final version of the Farm Bill. Instead of offering the amendment in the clear light of day where it could be debated, these groups are now trying to go in the back door. They clearly do not believe in the democratic process, in which producers have a right to self-determination, free speech and taxation without representation. Instead, they are attempting to impose on all producers their particular point of view of what constitutes what is good for all of them.”

“This provision is not a small, technical amendment to existing law,” says the LMA. “It is a 4-page, 1,200-word statute with considerable implications for all agricultural producers, not just cattle ranchers or even livestock producers. The Justice Department and the commodity groups did not raise the “government speech” argument until after their other arguments failed in the courts. Two separate cases, now in federal courts in South Dakota and Montana, are currently considering whether checkoffs constitute government speech. If the checkoff programs truly are “government speech,” then the courts will make that determination. The Congress, however, should not make that determination retroactively, by supporting this attempt to circumvent the law and the will of the courts.”

“It cannot be stressed too strongly,” says the LMA, “that these checkoff programs were intended to be, and have always been promoted to producers as, self-help programs, run and financed by producers. It is only now, after the Supreme Court has struck down the mushroom checkoff, that checkoff supporters suddenly proclaim that their programs are a function of the government. To now call these programs “government speech” is more than a desperate attempt to avoid judicial review — it is a betrayal of the producers who´ve believed in, and financed these programs.”

“People With Their Own Barrels Of Ink”

The Johnson/Grassley Amendment is a proposal in the Farm Bill that would prohibit packers with more than 2 percent of the national slaughter, from owning, feeding or controlling livestock 14 days prior to slaughter. The bill does not prohibit forward contracting, strategic alliances or marketing agreements and is supported by R-CALF the Farm Bureau and many state cattlemen´s organizations. The NCBA is lobbying hard against the amendment. At the NCBA convention the cow-calf council voted to support the ban on packer ownership but the NCBA committee on live cattle marketing defeated a similar proposal. In the final analysis the NCBA, in what has been called “a well choreographed convention,” voted against the packer ban.

This author was not at the NCBA convention but here´s how John Hays, Immediate Past President of Oregon Cattlemen´s Association described the proceeding. “The cow/calf caucus fought hard for a ban on packer ownership and mandatory country of origin labeling. As usual, the packers and their friends, the Kansas Livestock Association and the Texas Cattle Feeders Association got their way. We had the majority of members wanting to end packer ownership and support of country of origin labeling, but not the votes, due to the weighted process. It is wrong when a member from KLA, on the Live Cattle Marketing committee, sits next to me and votes with 5 cards while I have one. The man on his right also had 5 votes.”

After the vote the new president of the NCBA, cattlemen and lawyer Wythe Willey said, “We´re were concerned that this amendment could hurt alliances and make us lose the progress we´ve made. ” Willie said NCBA will ask Congress to designate an oversight committee TO STUDY THE ISSUE AND DETERMINE IF THERE IS A PROBLEM WITH CONCENTRATION IN THE MEAT INDUSTRY.” (emphasis ours.)

Please read that again! The NCBA DOES NOT KNOW if there is a problem with concentration in the beef industry and they want to study the issue.

Cattle industry analyst Les Messinger says, “Packer paid” academics along with “packer bought” leaders of our own association have presented so many ridiculous negative results of this legislation that I cannot even begin to mention them here. They keep mentioning how the government screwed up mandatory price reporting but refuse to acknowledge that what screwed up mandatory price reporting was a back-door deal involving the NCBA and packers, and the packers need for confidentiality.” Messinger thinks the packer ban won´t make it into the final Farm Bill and that Congress will suggest another study by a task force, probably composed of the above mentioned packer´s professors.

The only independent report not funded by the meat packer lobby has already found that the packer ownership amendment WILL improve competition in the livestock industry. That study was co-authored by professors John Connor (Purdue), Roger McEowen (Kansas State), Peter Carstensen (Wisconsin) and Neil Harl (Iowa State).

Again, the NCBA knew their stance on the packer ban would not sit well with most cattlemen so they sent out a study for livestock editors to print in support of NCBA´s position. Many livestock newspapers printed it. The study was done by Sparks, a consulting, commodity trading, large cattle feeding operation and long time captive cattle supply provider to IBP. Mike Callicrate says, “The undue and illegal premium and discount preferences provided by IBP to Spark´s feeding operations have represented enormous benefits to Sparks, at times exceeding $100 per head over the price the cash cattle seller receives.” According to Callicrate we know of Spark´s IBP advantage because the normally secret price information was discovered when IBP inadvertently sent a Sparks check and payment analysis to the wrong address.

According to Callicrate, “Sparks Consulting receives most revenue from the very agri-businesses which are fighting against the amendment.”

For the NCBA to use such a study as justification for their actions, that was written by a firm that sells contract cattle to IBP is like having Arthur Anderson do the auditing and consulting for Enron and then proclaim everything “hunky-dory.”

“We Are With You, We Are With You”

In April 2000, NCBA helped organize and sponsor the “five-nation” meeting of cattle organizations from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico and the U.S. Argentina was also a welcomed guest at the meeting. At that meeting an agreement was signed that calls for expanded trade among the nations mentioned. It calls for elimination of Tariff Rate Quotas and free and unfettered access to the U.S. market for foreign beef. You should also know that NCBA is working hard in support of Trade Promotion Authority (Fast Track) which would give President Bush the ability to create more NAFTA-like agreements and expand NAFTA to 31 other trading partners in the western hemisphere.

Such legislation will give Argentina the same opportunity to ruin our markets as Mexico and Canada now enjoy. And keep in mind that a year ago a 750-pound Angus-cross steer off grass in Argentina was selling for 35 U.S. cents per pound, and is much cheaper now after their currency crises. The legislation would also swing wide the door of welcome to Brazil where the cost of gain is around 17 cents per pound. Brazil is the third largest producer of corn in the world and has nearly 150 million head of cattle compared to our 96 million head.

Schroeder and his NCBA big-wheels seemed giddy over the chance to stand behind Bush in the their cowboy hats while he pushed for fast track authority and the Free Trade agreement. The NCBA has already applauded the House of Representatives for passing fast track. NCBA is also an active participant in the Agriculture for Trade Promotion Authority, a coalition of groups representing virtually every major multinational corporation in the country who are clamoring for fast track. These corporate interests have been successful in pushing fast track and free trade because of the money they have contributed to candidates of both major parties. Little wonder then that they came to NCBA´s house to say they are with NCBA.

Pardon us if we are, in the words of the NCBA, “ill-intentioned, ill-informed, vile spirited junk merchants,” but we wonder why any rancher or farmer in this country would want more NAFTA-like agreements. Since the passage of NAFTA wheat exports have dropped 8 percent and the price has dropped 28 percent. Corn prices have fallen 20 percent and cotton prices 38 percent. Meanwhile ADM´s and Con Agra´s profit tripled. And as each day passes another independent feeder or stocker operator goes out of business.

Chuck Schroeder has moved on to the Cowboy Hall of Fame now where we can only hope his first action of business is not to enshrine chcicken man and new owner of IBP, John Tyson, in the Hall. But on his way out the door Schroeder referred to President Bush as coming to “NCBA´s house.” A house that with each new day looks more and more like it was bought and paid for with packers using checkoff dollars.