Organic Consumers Association

Tell Your Representative to Stop Big Food’s 'Secrecy' Rider!

Last year, The American Egg Board (AEB) was caught in the act trying to sabotage Hampton Creek, a company that markets a plant-based egg-free alternative and a product called “Just Mayo” (an egg-free mayonnaise). Documents revealed that AEB members viewed Hampton Creek as a threat to the $5.5-billion-a-year egg industry.

A series of emails, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) revealed the details of AEB’s vendetta against Hampton Creek and its CEO, Josh Tetrick. (Michele Simon, Eat Drink Politics, reported on the emails, including one in which Mike Sencer, executive VP of AEB member Hidden Villa Ranch, wrote: "Can we pool our money and put a hit on him [Tetrick]?").

The public embarrassment of AEB led some of the largest U.S. food producers and their lobbyists to ask Congress to shield groups like AEB from FOIA requests. With help from their friends in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Big Ag groups attached a rider to the House agricultural appropriations bill that would exempt groups like AEB from FOIA requests.

TAKE ACTION: Tell Your Representative to Stop Big Food’s 'Secrecy' Rider!

Fifty years ago, Congress passed the Freedom of Information (FOIA) Act. FOIA gives anyone, including the media, non-government organizations and private citizens, the right to request and obtain information from the federal government.

AEB isn’t a government agency. So why was it required to turn over documents, including the incriminating emails related to Hampton Creek, under FOIA? Because of something called Research & Promotion Programs, created under the Commodity, Promotion, Research and Information Act of 1996. The programs—more commonly referred to as checkoff programs—are overseen by the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Under the checkoff program, groups like AEB, the Cattleman’s Beef Board, the National Pork Board and others promote and provide research for agricultural commodities (think eggs, beef, pork, etc.) in order to increase demand and consumption. You may not have heard of these groups themselves, but you’re probably familiar with their work. They’re responsible for marketing slogans like "The incredible, edible egg," "Beef. It’s what’s for dinner," "Pork: the other white meat," and "Got milk?"

How are groups like AEB funded? Under the checkoff program farmers and producers are required to pay a certain percentage of their earnings into a fund, which remember, is overseen by the USDA. The fact that the Supreme Court ruled that contributing to checkoff programs is mandatory, and that the programs themselves constitute government speech, is what makes groups like AEB subject to FOIA.  According to a report in the Guardian, the program has been criticized by small farmers and producers who say it discriminates against them by favoring large, industrial producers—in other words, factory farms.

Checkoff programs come with rules for how they are allowed to promote commodities. Under those rules, AEB is supposed to "increase demand for eggs and egg products through research, education and promotion." AEB is not supposed to "make use of … unfair … practices with respect to quality, value or use of any competing product."

When AEB’s emails detailing the board’s vendetta against Hampton Creek were made public, AEB was exposed for violating the checkoff program’s rules. Not happy with all the bad publicity, AEB now wants Congress to exempt it from FOIA, so presumably its members can continue to conduct their shady operations free from public scrutiny.

How far did AEB go?

We can assume that AEB board members were only joking when they talked about putting a hit on Tetrick, but they demonstrated their sincere determination to destroy his business by suggesting several other unfair practices, including:

•    Paying someone to pressure Whole Foods Market to reject Hampton Creek’s egg-free Just Mayo.
•    Hiring an infamous corporate public relations firm to pay food bloggers to smear Hampton Creek’s Beyond Eggs egg-replacer as unnatural and nutritionally deficient.

AEB also repeatedly violated the law that says that no funds shall “be used for the purpose of influencing government policy or action” by:

•    Attempting to join the Association of Dressings and Sauces, even though, as a USDA Research & Promotion board, the AEB is prohibited from the lobbying activities this trade association engages in.
•    Lobbying the USDA’s National Supervisor of Shell Eggs to help it make a complaint to the Food & Drug Administration about Just Mayo’s non-GMO claim.
•    Helping the United Egg Producers and Unilever file FDA complaints against Hampton Creek.

The only reason we know that any of this happened is because of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). AEB’s illegal activity should have been the subject of a Congressional investigation.

Instead, AEB’s friends in Congress want to encourage its bad deeds by exempting it from FOIA.

As of yet, no Member of Congress has stood up to take credit for the rider to the ag appropriations bill, but it’s pretty clear who’s to blame.

Trade associations representing the factory farm industry wrote a letter to Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., chairman of the House Appropriations agriculture subcommittee. Rep. Aderholt receives campaign contributions from many of these groups, including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Potato Council. The language these groups suggested in that letter showed up in Rep. Aderholt’s version of the agriculture spending bill.

Legalized bribery like this must stop. We can’t allow Congress to stuff its spending bills with favors to the factory farm industry.

TAKE ACTION: Tell Your Representative to Stop Big Food’s 'Secrecy' Rider!