As those following the fortunes of plant-based food maker Hampton Creek will know, it was emails uncovered by Freedom of Information Act requests (FOIA) made in late 2014 which suggested that the American Egg Board had engaged in a concerted attempt to undermine Hampton Creek via actions that went beyond the AEB's official remit (which is “to increase demand for eggs and egg products through research, education and promotion”).
The emails suggested the AEB paid someone to call Whole Foods to attempt to block the distribution of Hampton Creek's flagship brand Just Mayo (egg-free mayo) and lobbied the FDA to look into Hampton Creek's labels in the wake of a Unilever lawsuit alleging it violated food labeling rules – allegations the AEB strongly denies.
The Commodity Checkoff Program Improvement Act of 2016 (S.3201), said Booker, would “restore trust in checkoff program practices,” by:
- Prohibiting checkoff programs from contracting with any organization that lobbies on agricultural policy;
- Prohibiting employees and agents of the checkoff boards from engaging in activities that may involve a conflict of interest;
- Prohibiting checkoff programs from engaging in anticompetitive activity, unfair or deceptive acts or practices, or any act that may be disparaging to another agricultural commodity or product;
- Requiring transparency through publication of checkoff program budgets and expenditures;
- Requiring periodic audits by the USDA Inspector General for compliance with the Improvement Act; and
- Requiring a GAO (government accountability office) audit of check off program compliance and a report with further recommendations related to checkoff programs.
Click HERE to read the full text of the bill, which was welcomed by The Humane Society president and CEO Wayne Pacelle in a blog post on Thursday highlighting his concerns about the use of funds levied by the beef and pork checkoff schemes.
FoodNavigator-USA has requested a comment from the AEB, which referred us to USDA.
An USDA spokesperson told us that officials were close to completing a probe into the AEB, but did not comment specifically on the Booker/Lee bill.
However, there are already laws in place to ensure the checkoff programs adhere to their authorizing statutes (which require a strict focus on research and promotion), he said: "USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service is committed to transparency in all our programs and oversight of the industry-funded research and promotion programs, which we are charged by law to ensure they adhere to their authorizing statutes - including not disparaging other commodities.
"AMS is currently finalizing results of an extensive review of activities by current and former employees of the American Egg Board, which were raised through AMS’s responsive FOIA process.”
Research & Promotion programs, authorized by Congress, are requested, funded, and driven by industry, and overseen by the USDA's agricultural marketing service (AMS). They are funded through fees (a 'check off') on producers of eggs, beef, pork and other agricultural products over a certain size.
The programs establish a framework to pool resources to develop new markets, strengthen existing markets, and conduct important research and promotion activities. AMS provides oversight, ensuring fiscal responsibility, program efficiency, and fair treatment of participating stakeholders.
AMS oversees more than 20 research and promotion boards that empower farmers, ranchers, and agricultural businesses including the American Egg Board (AEB), the Fluid Milk Processors Promotion Program, and the National Peanut Board.
Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA last year, the AEB insisted that it "has never used check-off funds for lobbying purposes," and argued that "responding to misinformation [allegedly disseminated by supporters of Hampton Creek] is consistent with the AEB Congressional mandate to conduct consumer education and promotion to strengthen the egg industry's position in the marketplace".