Last winter, a checkoff proposal that Christmas tree growers approved was torpedoed when a blogger decided that it was a "tax" on the holiday symbols.
It didn't matter that it really isn't a tax on trees and that 19 similar federal checkoffs exist. Nor did it matter that Congress authorized such research and promotion efforts for commodities in the 1930s. The damage was done and, trying to minimize the political fallout, USDA officials put the Christmas tree checkoff on indefinite hold.
That was bad enough, but the collateral damage has spread. Other checkoff proposals, such as two covering raspberries and blackberries, have been shelved for fear USDA officials will be seen as promoting taxes on food.
It's a bit of a stretch to label a checkoff assessment a tax. Producers vote on checkoffs as a means of assessing themselves to promote their crops and pay for research. They also decide how to spend the money.
Taxes are imposed on taxpayers, who generally do not vote on them. Just ask the Internal Revenue Service if you got to vote on the income taxes you paid April 17. And you surely weren't asked how Congress should spend that money.
You might ask: Why don't growers just assess themselves through an industry organization? That's a good question. Federal and state commodity commissions formerly did just that, but were dragged into court over free speech and other issues. The way the law is currently interpreted, commissions are best off if operated as government agencies.
Beyond the nitpicking over checkoffs, other industries have been victims of bloggers and the Internet. A couple of months ago another mischaracterization went viral: pink slime.
It's also known as lean finely textured beef and is really leftover scraps of meat that go into hamburger, yet to the sages of the blogosphere it's some unimaginable threat to public health.
"What?!" they write in mock horror. "They don't use prime rib to make hamburger?!"
There's a saying in the livestock industry that everything is used except the moo. That's good stewardship. With 318 million mouths to feed in the U.S. and nearly 7 billion more overseas, it's immoral to waste food.
Moreover, if the price of hamburger goes up because less of the steer can be used, some bloggers will no doubt screech about the high cost of beef.
These are two examples of how facts don't get in the way of blogs who base their "news" stories on them without further investigation.
That's how we end up with "taxes" that aren't taxes and "slime" that isn't. The legitimate public debate about food production is detoured from reality into a semifictional twilight zone populated by sound bites and buzzwords.
The result: The public is forced to consider important issues -- nothing is more important than feeding the world -- without the benefit of facts. When that occurs, we all lose.