I first encountered the power of the beef lobby back in 1980, when I was left in the Georgia governor’s federal-state relations office to fend for myself while my colleagues frolicked at an association meeting in Puerto Rico. I fielded a call, and found myself dealing with a very angry chairman of the Georgia House Agriculture Committee, who was brandishing a resolution from the women’s auxiliary (yes, they had one, called, no kidding, the Cow Belles) of the Cattleman’s Association attacking new dietary standards from the Carter Administration that apparently discouraged the constant and massive consumption of red meat. “Those damn hippies at USDA have to be reined in,” the agitated solon kept shouting at me. My semi-vacationing colleagues laughed and laughed when I told them about the call.
I now understand after reading Siddartha Mahanta’s piece, “Big Beef,” in the January-February issue of the Washington Monthly, that I had experienced a rather primitive phase of what would soon be a legendary lobbying operation, thanks to a subsequent law that created a producer-financed but federally supervised fund to promote beef consumption (part of the 1980s push to help farmers and ranchers). Like a lot of well-intentioned programs, it wound up being captured by the most powerful and least needy of the affected interests:
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 [the National Cattleman’s Beef Association], which relies overwhelmingly on this public money to support itself. 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.
Indeed, as Mahanta explains, the independent ranchers who were originally the target of federal assistance are increasingly allied with health agencies, sustainable agriculture advocates, and even animal rights activists, in opposition to Big Beef on issues ranging from country-of-origin product labeling to health guidelines for public employees. That ranchers are now fighting against interests funded by their own mandatory contributions to the promotion fund is part of the many ironies involved.
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.
It’s an ongoing scandal. You should read Mahanta’s piece and help us all avoid being browbeaten by Big Beef.