New regs to rule them all?

by Erica Shaffer
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WASHINGTON – Commodity checkoff programs can expect more scrutiny and training in light of a recently completed investigation into the activities of the American Egg Board (AEB).

In 2015, the Agricultural Marketing Service’s Compliance and Analysis Program launched an investigation into allegations of misconduct by the AEB made by Joshua Tetrick, CEO and founder of Hampton Creek Inc., which manufactures the vegan mayonnaise product, Just Mayo. AMS said in its report findings that while agency didn’t find evidence to substantiate all of the allegations, several instances of inappropriate conduct did occur including:

• Inappropriate emails between AEB staff members and a board member;
• Inappropriate emails by former AEB CEO Joanne Ivy;
• Focusing on a specific product and company; and
• Failing to adhere to the USDA Guidelines for AMS Oversight of Commodity Research and Promotion Guidelines (AMS Guidelines).

Instances where AMS did not find wrongdoing include email exchanges between egg board employees and an alternate AEB board member about Tetrick in which potentially threatening references were made.

“Through interviews with the individuals affiliated with the Board it was determined that the statements were made in jest and that there was no actual intent to cause harm to Mr. Tetrick,” AMS said in its review. “Nonetheless, this behavior was inappropriate and raised concerns for AMS.”

As a result of the incident, an informational memorandum to AMS Administrator Elanor Starmer, whose division oversees checkoff boards, featured several recommendations that could impact other commodity checkoff programs.

The memo stated that AMS should conduct a program evaluation of the Livestock, Poultry and Seed programs’ research and promotion oversight activities “to ensure adherence with applicable laws and USDA’s policies and procedures.” The memo also discussed “rulemaking to standardize all Research and Promotion order provisions regarding the removal of Research and Promotion Board and staff members when necessary.”

Initiatives that should be undertaken immediately included training for AMS checkoff staff in the areas of reviewing budget and financial activities of the boards; documenting agency communications with board staff; applying AMS guidelines and reviewing what constitutes influencing government policy.

Finally, AMS should develop and implement new, standardized board member orientation to include consistent information on board member responsibilities, oversight functions and proper use of checkoff funds.

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