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Sixteen different breeds and combinations of breeds are represented in the cattle herd at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Nebraska. (Courtesy U.S. Meat Animal Research Center)
Sixteen different breeds and combinations of breeds are represented in the cattle herd at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Nebraska. (Courtesy U.S. Meat Animal Research Center)

What do you get when you cross a whistleblower with public documents and a dogged reporter? Some great investigative reporting on the meat industry.

The New York Times’ devastating report on the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Nebraska has already triggered a result. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack has ordered an updated Animal Welfare Strategy plan within 60 days, according to an email obtained by Reuters.

The Times report, by Michael Moss, a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter, is a detailed look at how the center has done tortuous experiments on animals for decades, all with little oversight and lots of taxpayer money.

The story will undoubtedly help drive the growing list of groups and companies calling for meat raised humanely. I’m betting it could also trigger a change to the Animal Welfare Act, which has a “gaping exception” for farm animals, according to the report.

David Pfrang, a Kansas cattleman, feeds his herd on this spring day in 2014. Pfrang believes the checkoff payments amount to taxation without representation. (Peggy Lowe/Harvest Public Media)
David Pfrang, a Kansas cattleman, feeds his herd on this spring day in 2014. Pfrang believes the checkoff payments amount to taxation without representation. (Peggy Lowe/Harvest Public Media)

Cattle producers may get a chance to vote on whether they want to double the increasingly controversial $1 beef checkoff charge.

Under a new plan unveiled this week, an industry working group proposed raising the fee to $2 that each producer pays upon sale of an animal, but also set a referendum every five years.

The proposal, which would have to get Congressional approval, would also offer producers the chance to get a refund of the additional $1, but not the original fee, according to a report by Chris Clayton in the Progressive Farmer.

The latest attempt at changing the beef checkoff comes at a time of producer unrest over the charge, mostly because independent farmers and ranchers have little say in how the mandated charge is spent.

David Pfrang just after tagging a three-hour-old calf as No. 7034 on his northeast Kansas ranch, spring 2014. (Peggy Lowe/Harvest Public Media)
David Pfrang just after tagging a three-hour-old calf as No. 7034 on his northeast Kansas ranch, spring 2014. (Peggy Lowe/Harvest Public Media)

David Pfrang calls it “the magic of the Internet.”

Thanks to the unlimited possibilities of the web, guys like Pfrang and his buddy, Jim Dobbins, can sit at their kitchen tables in Nemaha County, Kansas, and track what the beef industry is doing.

Using tools typically limited to lawyers and journalists, Pfrang and Dobbins can sift through IRS Form 990s, tracking the big six-figure salaries of the power players in Washington, Denver and Topeka. They can study government audits. And they can dissect the law that forces them to pay $1 for every animal they sell to a program called the Beef Checkoff.

“It’s turned us into activists,” Pfrang said.

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