WASHINGTON – The slogans are familiar: “The Incredible Edible Egg,” ”Pork: The Other White Meat,” and “Got Milk?”
They’ve all been part of promotional campaigns overseen by the Agriculture Department and paid for by the industries that vote to organize them. While the idea is simple — an industry-wide promotional campaign at no cost to the government — they’ve often generated controversy, been misunderstood and at times have operated with little oversight.
The egg industry is the latest to draw scrutiny for its promotional board after it appears to have waged a campaign to hurt sales of an eggless imitation mayonnaise. According to email documents provided to The Associated Press, the American Egg Board tried to prevent Whole Foods grocery stores from selling Hampton Creek’s Just Mayo spread and engaged in other efforts to counter the brand.
According to the documents, American Egg Board CEO Joanne Ivy emailed a consultant in 2013 saying she would accept his offer “to make that phone call to keep Just Mayo off Whole Foods shelves.” Whole Foods still sells the product.
USDA spokesman Sam Jones-Ellard said the department is looking into the documents and “does not condone any efforts to limit competing products in commerce.” He didn’t say if USDA would take any action, and it’s unclear if the egg board’s communications would violate the law.
By law, USDA is tasked with making sure that the quasi-government boards stay away from disparaging other commodities and from campaigning for legislation or regulation. The idea is that the campaigns stay promotional, not negative.
There are about 20 other programs — also known as “checkoffs” — from the Mushroom Council to the National Christmas Tree Promotion Board. USDA’s oversight includes ensuring fiscal responsibility, program efficiency and fair treatment for all sectors of the industries that form boards.
In 2012, USDA’s inspector general issued a report saying departmental oversight should be improved. Specifically, the audit said USDA should better detect the misuse of board checkoff funds and gather more information from the boards to assess their activities. The report cited examples of improper employee bonuses and travel expenses. USDA said it would make improvements.
Some of the programs have been challenged in court. In 2008, a judge barred the egg board from spending money to campaign on a proposition in California. And the USDA is currently defending itself in a federal lawsuit that alleges the National Pork Board cut a deal to help fund a non-governmental pork association that lobbies lawmakers.
The groups’ association with the government has also made them vulnerable to political attacks. In 2011, the White House delayed a decision to approve a Christmas tree promotion program after conservatives accused the Agriculture Department of a Christmas tree tax— even though the program would have been paid for by industry and the National Christmas Tree Association said it wouldn’t have an impact on prices. The program eventually went into effect after congressional action in 2014.
The organic industry has faced similar political criticism as it sets up its own promotion program with USDA. Some farm-state members of Congress have opposed an organic checkoff, arguing that you can’t promote organic agriculture without disparaging conventional agriculture.
Laura Batcha, head of the Organic Trade Association, says the group has been mindful of previous problems as it has worked over the last several years to create a checkoff program. The organic industry is hoping a board will help consumers understand what the term means. Producers have been especially concerned about marketplace confusion, including the common use of the word “natural” on food packages, which can be confused with organic.
Other industries have similarly hoped to boost consumer perception. National Pork Board CEO Chris Hodges says that in the 30 years since the board was founded, the industry has seen large growth in exports and increased consumer demand. He says research funded by the board has helped U.S. pork producers keep their animals healthier and made business more efficient.
Hodges says his group is in close touch with USDA and department officials are directly involved with its decisions.
Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick maintains that USDA oversight of the boards is lax, and has called for a congressional investigation. In the emails, one egg board executive appeared to joke about having Tetrick killed.
Tetrick’s company, which markets itself as promoting healthier eating, provided the documents to the AP after they were obtained on a public records request by Ryan Noah Shapiro, a Freedom of Information Act expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“There needs to be a lot more oversight in how these programs are run, because they have a real impact on how people eat,” Tetrick said.
Associated Press writer Candice Choi contributed to this report from New York.
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