The ruling was made hundreds of miles away, but the implications reached into every pasture and feedlot in the nation: beef producers will continue to pay a $1-per-head assessment to support beef promotion and consumer education.
On Nov. 1, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Cebull in Billings, Mont., issued a ruling which declares the Beef Promotion and Research Act constitutional and notes that speech compelled by the act “constitutes support for government speech.”
Since July 10, the nation's beef checkoff program has operated under a stay granted by the U.S. Court of Appeals on behalf of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The stay, which allowed checkoff collections to continue, was issued after a June 21 decision by the District Court in South Dakota ruled the beef checkoff unconstitutional.
While the Nov. 1 ruling left industry leaders in the Mid-South breathing a sigh of relief, they are also concerned more challenges will follow and are calling on the region's beef producers to continue support of the checkoff program.
“Where would we be with no promotion of our product? The Beef Council that directs how checkoff dollars are used is made up of beef producers and a representation of packers and feeders. It's not like beef producers don't have control of the checkoff funds they voluntarily voted in to support promotion of the commodity they produce,” said Oktibbeha County, Miss., beef producer Webb Flowers, who added that even though beef prices aren't currently above a breakeven level, he believes most producers aren't pointing fingers at the checkoff program.
“There is currently an oversupply of poultry, pork and beef. When you look at the total oversupply level of these major protein sources, it is hard not to see an equation for negative margins,” said Flowers, who also serves as the coordinator of the Integrated Resource Management Program for the Mississippi State University Extension Service.
“Beef is making significant progress as a healthy food as compared to chicken and other protein sources and demonstrates incomparable consumer acceptance for taste,” said Flowers. “Much of this progress has been supported by the beef checkoff.
“This ruling is very positive for the Beef Checkoff Program; however, this ruling may not be final pending any appeal. The sooner this is favorably heard before the Supreme Court the better.”
Sammy Blossom, executive vice president of the Mississippi Cattlemen's Association, also is pleased with the judge's ruling.
“Surveys show the vast majority of Southeastern producers support their beef checkoff, and we continue to focus our time and attention on building demand for beef,” said Blossom. “The industry is under severe economic pressure, and we can't stop promoting beef.”
The Beef Checkoff Program was established as part of the 1985 farm bill. The checkoff assesses $1 per head on the sale of live domestic and imported cattle, in addition to a comparable assessment on imported beef and beef products. States retain up to 50 cents on the dollar and forward the other 50 cents per head to the Cattlemen's Beef Promotion and Research Board, which oversees the national checkoff program, subject to USDA oversight.
The checkoff assessment became mandatory when the program was approved by 79 percent of producers in a 1988 national referendum vote. Checkoff revenues may be used for promotion, education and research programs to improve the marketing climate for beef.
With the declaration of the beef checkoff's constitutionality, the Beef Board's chairman, Dee Lacey, said it is important that all players in the beef industry band together to improve the marketplace for their products — especially in light of recent market activity. “It is now more critical than ever before that we come together as an industry,” Lacey said.
Eva Ann Dorris is an ag journalist from Pontotoc, Miss. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.