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USDA hits the brakes on proposal to set up organic ‘check-off’

Beef has “It’s what’s for dinner.” Pork has “The Other White Meat.” And Dairy has “Milk Does A Body Good.”

The USDA’s “check-off” programs are behind those famous slogans, but you won’t soon be hearing one for organic food. Tuesday the U.S. Department of Agriculture terminated proceedings begun under the Commodity Promotion, Research, and Information Act of 1996 that sought to create an organic check-off.

USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service did not come right out and say it, but factious groups don’t go very well anymore with the check-off programs. Federal judges have ruled that messages from commodity groups are “government speech.” Anyone paying into the check-off fund can make a federal case out of the slogan writing.

The membership-based Organic Trade Association (OTA) proposed the organic check-off three years ago. In an announcement in the Federal Register, AMS said it was not taking the OTA idea any further because of “uncertain industry support and outstanding substantive issues with the proposed program…”

The OTA wanted a check-off financed by an assessment on certified organic products that would be administered by a board from the industry appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture.

The trade association said the purpose of the organic check-off “would be to strengthen the position of certified organic products in the marketplace, support research to benefit the organic industry, and improve access to information and data across the organic sector.”

With the publication in the Federal Register, AMS collected almost 15,000 comments on the check-off proposal during a 90-day period in early 2017. “The comments revealed that there is a split within the industry regarding support for the proposed program,” AMS said.

The OTA responded with a media statement of its own, saying the termination “reflects a pattern of holding back forward progress on organic by USDA.”

“The $50 billion organic sector offers opportunities for U.S. organic farmers and businesses,” the OTA statement continued. “It makes no sense that the agency is continuing to take steps to cut it off at its knees.”

To counter claims that the organic industry is too factionalized for a check-off program, OTA said it had support from 1,230 certified organic operators.

Some comments, AMS noted, also expressed concerns about check-off assessments and the likelihood that organic promotions would disparage other agricultural commodities along with other issues.

Organic farmers with revenues under $250,000 would have been exempt from the check-off.

About 20 agricultural commodities currently have check-off programs. Some have used the funds to sponsor food safety research to benefit their industry.

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