The Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America, abbreviated as R-CALF USA, filed documents in a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Montana asking that 15 state beef checkoff programs be declared unconstitutional.
The producer-only cattle trade association is targeting checkoff programs in Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont and Wisconsin. The group claims beef councils in those states are private corporations that keep half of the mandatory assessments collected from cattle producers to fund private speech — and such action violates the First Amendment.
R-CALF USA wants producers to decide whether to fund these checkoff programs. If they choose not to, the group wants the mandatory $1-per-head assessment on cattle sold to instead go to the government to pay for work benefiting ranchers. Montana is doing this after R-CALF USA won a preliminary injunction in court there nearly two years ago, and it was upheld this spring by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
After successfully challenging Montana's beef checkoff program, R-CALF USA is trying to expand that victory to 14 other states. The group claims beef checkoff money is being mismanaged. Using half of it to fund private speech is not only unconstitutional, the group claims, but injures its members because the councils promote beef in general — even if it's not produced in the United States.
"The injury arises because the councils are not accountable to the public, meaning R-CALF USA cannot employ traditional lobbying techniques to advocate for change," the group said in a release.
It also said checkoff money goes to third parties that are not publicly accountable, and which use the funds to promote consolidation of the cattle and beef industry — practices R-CALF USA opposes.
An example cited in the motion is the Texas Beef Council, which R-CALF USA claims gave $2 million to the Federation of State Beef Councils. Part of those funds went to fund another private entity, the U.S. Meat Export Federation.
It's hard to tell at this stage how the situation will play out in court, although there is the Montana precedent to consider. Taking on 15 state beef checkoff programs is a relatively heavy lift, and some mainstream beef industry representatives see the move as a frontal attack on a major funding mechanism and on their organizations.
In a statement cited by BEEF magazine, Kendall Frazier, CEO of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, criticized R-CALF USA for challenging beef checkoff programs and said its "crusade against state beef councils" has disappointed producers and association members across the country.
"R-CALF has become nothing more than a front group for activists seeking to divide the industry, lessen beef demand and drive producers out of business," he said.
NCBA also opposes congressional action to bar beef checkoff programs from contracting with organizations involved in agricultural advocacy, maintaining that producers "have proven perfectly capable of deciding how to spend their money." Beef checkoff funds, which have been collected since 1988, currently amount to about $72 million annually, NCBA said.
Challenges have beset other checkoff-funded marketing programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including the National Pork Board and the American Egg Board.
Pork producers are currently being asked to support a referendum on their checkoff program because the Minnesota-based Campaign for Family Farms says it hasn't helped independent farmers facing poor markets and declining numbers. If the group collects about 21,000 signatures — 15% of U.S. hog producers — a vote on keeping the checkoff would be held and simple majority would win.
The American Egg Board contracted a few years ago for pro-egg ads to appear alongside search results for Hampton Creek's plant-based Just Mayo product. Hampton Creek — now JUST — objected and USDA subsequently found the egg board had inappropriately targeted a competitor rather than promoted eggs in general. The agency then required checkoff program staff to attend training on guidelines and set up a rule allowing the Agriculture Secretary to remove program staff for misconduct.
It may be that commodity checkoff programs are prone to abuse without adequate oversight, although the NCBA's Frazier said the beef checkoff passed two audits by USDA's Office of the Inspector General.
It may also be that producer support varies by commodity. USDA decided last year not to allow the Organic Trade Association to establish a checkoff program because it said insufficient numbers of organic producers backed it. The program was projected to raise $30 million annually for research and promotion of certified organic products.
Whether checkoff programs are still relevant today or really help producers remain open questions. Factors such as competition, the economy at large and shifting consumer demands could be impacting commodity producers as much as the effectiveness — or lack thereof — of mandatory checkoff programs.