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The Checkoff Saga

I was going to use the word “fiasco” in the title of this piece but I worried that such a word would imply that the good work of the checkoff has stopped, while all of the political infighting wages. While certainly there’s been far too much energy spent on this infighting, which has decreased the effectiveness of the checkoff, the state beef councils and contractors are still working hard to produce great results for the industry. Despite the squabbling by the generals, the frontline troops are still putting in heroic efforts.

The checkoff situation is only a fiasco in the sense that the “brands” of the checkoff and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) have suffered significant damage; with most of that damage unjustly administered due to politics. I guess one shouldn’t be surprised that the outside forces creating this damage have historically never been fans of either the checkoff or NCBA.

The allegations of wrongdoing keep growing; the latest entail lobbying by key leaders of USDA for board appointments. But as egregious as these ethical lapses have been, they are repairable.

From the beginning, NCBA took ownership of any mistakes and is doing everything possible to mend the relationship. The Cattlemen’s Beef Board (CBB) leadership, meanwhile, is more isolated and thus has been less receptive to the industry’s desire to refocus on building demand. However, if the pace of meetings being called is any indication, there are positive signs of progress.

The next couple of weeks should be critical in determining whether the industry will get back to its work of building demand and producer profitability, or whether the checkoff will head down a path from which it won’t recover. The good news is that when one reads all the emails from dedicated state and national leaders, it’s obvious that the political gamesmanship is the purview of a small minority.

The overwhelming majority of people are dedicated to doing the job at hand as efficiently and effectively as possible. No one could support an increase in checkoff dollars until changes have taken place that will prevent these political games from occurring again. But the irony is that this episode has underscored just how much good work the checkoff does and how imperative it is for the industry to build demand.

I think nearly everyone believes the current structure is largely effective; but whether it means a totally new program funded and controlled outside the current Act or not, the industry will find a way to get the job done. It may take some time to fix the damage done, with a few items requiring significant effort to rebuild trust, but it begins with some sincere apologies and a commitment to move forward.

The irony of the situation is that while we’ve always put a lot of time and effort in ensuring that checkoff dollars were not used for political purposes and the firewall between contractors and the policy side was maintained, the politicization of the checkoff occurred from within, with many groups attempting to use the checkoff to achieve political aims. There’s little doubt the checkoff has become a political battleground – it just came from the side of the firewall no one foresaw.

There are many on the CBB who are trying to remove the politicization of the checkoff and get it focused back on beef demand. The question now is what it will take to make CBB apolitical and focused on building demand.