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When Apologies Make Things Worse

The latest round of the checkoff fiasco reminds me of a vacation movie scene where the dad pulls over to the side of the road and announces to the kids fighting in the back seat that the car isn’t moving until everyone says they’re sorry. So the kids halfheartedly offer their apologies, the car starts down the road, and the kids immediately go back to fighting. Ironically, the forced apologies probably made things worse.

If the flood of email and calls I received last week are any indication, the apologies offered by the Executive Committee of the Beef Board last week were probably more harmful than helpful.

There are good people on the state beef councils who are angry that they were spied on multiple times and yet essentially nothing was done to the offending individuals. Others were amazed that these breaches of ethics were dealt with as separate issues and handled as if they required the proof necessary in a court of law.

But did anyone really expect the actions to be different. After all, the accused were essentially acting as judge and jury.

I think we’ve all tried to make this industry battle fit into a box that makes sense. The problem is we’ve never accepted that good people can be so politically driven that they wouldn’t have the best interest of the industry at heart. It’s absolutely impossible to understand the end game or the actions unless you realize that this debate has nothing to do with the Act and Order, compliance, inclusivity or building demand. This is about policy, politics and achieving political aims; this is also about retribution and ego, but mostly this is about individuals winning.

I’ve served on quite a few boards and I’ve never been part of an organization that would have condoned such breaches of ethics, or leadership that so openly defied the will of the board and the organization they represent. The full Cattlemen's Beef Board and numerous cattle organizations have made their wishes clear – knock off these games and get focused on what’s important.

When we punish these kinds of actions by administering a slap on the wrist, we send the message that we essentially will tolerate such actions now and in the future.

I haven’t wanted to say it, because I know that the tremendous work the state beef councils and the contractors have done on behalf of the checkoff is nothing short of outstanding. Their efforts have put significant dollars back into the pockets of every producer. But the reality is that beef producers voted down the checkoff until they believed it would be producer-controlled and not a government entity.

And, the reason producers weren’t able to effect significant change regarding this debacle isn’t because they didn’t want to prevent it, but because they had no power to do it. The checkoff is a government-mandated program; as such, it has become the most political entity in our industry.

So, how do we make sure these games aren’t played in the future? Perhaps the system is salvageable if we take aggressive action – producers need to make their voices heard that there are consequences for playing politics with our demand building efforts, but that seems unlikely.

We know the state beef councils do tremendous work; perhaps we need to look at the structure of the checkoff in its entirety. The reality is this: I heard an expert recently predict the beef cowherd could fall to 29 million beef cows, helped along by drought and ethanol-fueled corn prices. If that’s the case, there won’t be sufficient dollars available to carry on an effective promotional program, let alone accomplish all the other goals.

The one thing that’s emerged from this internal industry structure is that it is possible to keep politics, policy, issue management and building beef demand separate. Still, they are all interrelated. We maintained the firewall between policy and promotion; no checkoff dollars were spent on policy issues – the industry makes sure of that through its compliance efforts. We just couldn’t stop the checkoff itself from becoming a politically driven entity.

The focus now shifts to the rules and responsibilities document and the debate which is geared to achieve the same goal in a different manner. This may be a good start, but the debate needs to be broadened to see what we can do to ensure the problems are actually dealt with and fixed for good.