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Checkoff Is Back In The Crosshairs

Checkoff Is Back In The Crosshairs

The lawsuit against the checkoff by the Organization for Competitive Markets with the help of the Humane Society of the U.S. was headline news at first. But as the dust settles, it’s become obvious that this is the same old strategy, just another tactic.

It’s unfortunate that the checkoff has been drawn into the crosshairs over policy differences, when the checkoff has nothing to do with policy. As expected, R-CALF and the J. Dudley Butlers of the world came out this week trying to rally support for the lawsuit on the basis of opposing National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) policy. It’s obvious that this suit is all about creating internal strife and trying to damage the NCBA brand.

A Closer Look: OCM, HSUS Go After Checkoff In Court

It isn’t surprising to me that these battles take place. After all, R-CALF has no hope of changing the views or votes of the majority of producers who are NCBA members, nor of the vast majority of producers who support the checkoff program. Everyone understands what the lawsuit is intended to do, and it has nothing to do with the checkoff.

The real question isn’t about the lawsuit. This battle will cost the industry dollars, and likely create more animosity between the two sides. The real question is whether it’s possible to resolve this because everyone – or most everyone – agrees it’s not in the industry’s best interest to see the checkoff used as a political football.

One obvious solution would be to abandon the industry’s unified structure. Everyone agrees on, and understands, the importance of the firewall between policy and promotion. And no one seriously alleges that the firewall has been breached or that anyone ever made any attempt to do so.

In addition, everyone agrees that the unified structure did what it was intended to accomplish – it made the industry’s efforts at building beef demand more effective and magnified the value received from our checkoff dollars. Still, virtually everyone would also agree that opponents of NCBA’s policy side have believed from day one that the checkoff is benefiting NCBA somehow.

In reality, it probably has. NCBA’s checkoff activities have increased the visibility of NCBA’s policy side, and created other synergies. But, while the opponents of NCBA’s policy know they can’t change the minds of the thousands of producer members who create and direct policy, the fact that the nexus exists creates friction.

Personally, I’ve always felt the gains in efficiency and effectiveness created by the unified efforts have outweighed the negatives that have been accrued to NCBA’s policy side, and to the checkoff in general. But perhaps it’s time to look at that tradeoff more closely.

Certainly, the industry appears to have benefited. The arrangement, however, has also increased industry internal strife and limited the industry’s ability to speak with a unified voice. While the industry has only has one voice of any consequence in Washington, D.C., and that’s NCBA, the effectiveness of that voice has been diminished by the continual fomenting of internal strife. Most everyone would love to return to the days when industry battles were waged in the industry’s meeting rooms, followed by votes and a unified stance.

Sadly, however, those days are gone. In its place, a whole new industry and set of organizations have been created that rely on maintaining and deepening industry strife and conflict.

The attempts to alter checkoff spending at this point will be mostly about semantics. What other group has the capability or the desire to perform the work that is done for the checkoff – at no profit? NCBA merely serves as a pass-through mechanism for checkoff dollars because the original Act and Order required that only industry organizations can be contractors. And while the contractor base might hopefully be expanded by the proposed changes to the rules, the majority of the contracts will still go to those with the greatest capability to carry them out in a cost-effective manner.

Checkoff dollars have been closely guarded to make sure they are used effectively, and the checkoff’s Operating Committee should be commended for making sure that the dollars have been spent effectively and appropriately. The greatest irony is that the checkoff has become a political football.

Perhaps it all can be summed up by the statements by the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) leadership, which basically stated that if NCBA didn’t want this lawsuit, the cattlemen’s organization should have stayed out of the poultry industry legislation that HSUS championed but was defeated with the help of NCBA.

If you can’t stop opponents of the industry or opponents of NCBA policies from using the checkoff as a political weapon, maybe it’s time to ask how does the industry prevent the checkoff from being put in this position, even if means we’re less effective in building beef demand. 

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