Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman yesterday endorsed recommendations for greater oversight of a dozen research and promotion programs that cost producers and importers $660 million a year, including a requirement that the people who pay the fees must be able to vote at least every five years on whether to continue them.
The proposals come about a year after Glickman appointed a task force to review the programs, known primarily for their print and television commercials that promote products with slogans like "Cotton, the Fabric of Our Lives," "The Incredible, Edible Egg," and "Got Milk?" The task force presented its findings yesterday.
The programs collect money from farmers or from businesses that import products, including mushrooms, potatoes, soybeans and beef. The fees on their products are used to promote them to consumers and to do research on improving them. Economists have said that much of the programs' cost is passed on to consumers.
The programs, regulated by independent boards, have been criticized for inappropriate spending, lax oversight and poor accounting. The Washington Post last year detailed hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenditures by Cotton Inc., the subcontractor that carries out the annual $60 million cotton program, including a $450,000 party at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and entertainment expenses such as strip bars and golfing fees.
"It's clear that we need to improve our oversight of these boards," Glickman said yesterday. "I'm the one who appoints these people. . . . They need to know that they're not just free agents. They need to avoid the kinds of things we saw in the cotton situation. . . . Above all, they have got to be accountable."
Hugh Summerville, chairman of the Cotton Board, was traveling and could not be reached yesterday. William Crawford, chief executive of the group, also was traveling, according to his secretary.
The Agriculture Department's Office of the Inspector General has criticized some of the programs, including those for cotton and milk, for the way their funds are used and how they're accounted for.
Among the suggestions of the task force, headed by Michael V. Dunn, undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, are that the participants who pay for the programs--mostly farmers--vote on whether to continue them at least every five years; that their regulatory boards have more diversity and receive instruction from USDA on avoiding conflicts of interest; and that the boards use competitive bidding and are audited according to generally accepted accounting practices.
"The people who are contributing these assessments need to know that people are monitoring these organizations," Glickman said. "Ultimately, it is their money."
At the same time, he said, it is not the job of USDA to micromanage the organizations.
Discussion of the mandatory assessments comes at a time when the face of American agriculture is changing dramatically and many family farms continue to go out of business. Some representatives of those who pay assessments on the mushrooms, pork or cotton they produce said the recommendations may not go far enough and questioned USDA's ability to oversee the programs.
Hugh Espey, a spokesman for the Campaign for the Family Farm, which opposes the mandatory programs on behalf of pork producers, said his organization would have preferred that there be a vote on the programs every two or three years.
"Every five years seems like a very long time," Espey said. "And we question USDA's ability to produce a referendum."
In May, pork producers gave USDA a list of 19,000 signatures of pork producers who wanted to vote on whether to continue the pork assessment program. The authorizing legislation for the pork program required 15 percent of pork producers, or 15,000, to call for a vote.
After seven months, USDA still has not verified the signatures for the referendum on pork.
Dunn said the problem with the pork group's petition was that many of the signatures and addresses could not be validated. "They shouldn't be criticizing us," Dunn said.
"It's easy for USDA to say let's have a referendum every five years, but who pays for them? The producers," said Al Tank, chief executive of the National Pork Producers Council. The council carries out the "Pork, the Other White Meat" promotions for the National Pork Board.
USDA so far has not had systematic guidelines for producers to call for a vote, Dunn said. One of the task force's recommendations is that the method of submitting a petition for a referendum be standardized.
In addition to pork producers, beef producers have called for a referendum on their program, turning 126,000 signatures over to USDA, according to John McBride, a spokesman for the Livestock Marketing Association.
"Is anybody going to be alive on the planet when they get through verifying 126,000 signatures?" McBride asked.
Glickman has approved all 21 of the task force's specific recommendations, which will be published in the Federal Register. Many will require legislative action.
RECOMMENDATIONS FROM USDA
USDA recommendations for increased oversight of the $660 million programs to promote agricultural products include:
* Having a referendum at least every five years on whether to continue each of the 12 programs.
* Requiring the programs' regulatory boards to use generally accepted government auditing standards.
* Encouraging more diversity on the boards.
* Requiring the boards to draft policies, subject to USDA approval, for travel and expense reimbursement.
* Requiring a super-majority to establish any new commodity programs.
* Requiring boards to use competitive bidding whenever possible.
* Having USDA personnel instruct board members on ethics and conflict-of-interest policies.
* Prohibiting the use of board funds to lobby.
CAPTION: Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, top, wants to establish tighter controls on product research and promotion programs developed by Cotton Inc. A similar program produced the familiar "Got Milk" ads.