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Trying To Understand The Beef Checkoff Situation

Troy Marshall clears up some misconceptions regarding the beef checkoff controversy and provides some suggestions for improvement.

I’ve received hundreds of emails recently regarding the checkoff situation. It’s an issue that is both important and confusing and I hope the following article can provide some context missing from the previous discussion.

First off, there are quite a few issues that exist here. The first issue really has nothing to do with the checkoff per se; it’s a personnel issue in which bad judgment was practiced, and the situation must be dealt with to restore trust in the checkoff process and personnel. Still, this personnel issue was the wakeup call to many folks that illustrated just how rotten the political infighting and the power struggle has become.

The remaining issues are more difficult to address, but let’s begin by stating what the issues are not. Certainly some people would argue that dollars be devoted to certain research, promotion and education projects over others. Such discussions are healthy and will always occur; no one is smart enough to know what the right answer is.

But the issue isn’t whether the money is being spent on the right projects or spent effectively. Nor is it a question of the checkoff’s contractors not doing a good job, or whether the industry’s long-range plan (which was designed to get everyone working in one strategic direction) has increased the effectiveness and efficiency of the checkoff.

The issue isn’t even whether the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) – as a major contractor – has received too high of a percentage of checkoff dollars. The truth is that, regardless of the structure, NCBA will do the bulk of the contract work because NCBA has the infrastructure and the capabilities to work on building beef demand.

The issue is also not the industry merger and effort to increase effectiveness. Yes, the merger caused heartburn among some people, but most would agree that the merger led to more effective spending of checkoff dollars.

The issue is also not whether checkoff dollars have been used for political purposes. While there has been the need for occasional accounting clarifications, everyone involved knows and appreciates how important it is to protect the firewall between policy and promotion, and thus protect the integrity of the checkoff.

There is also no real debate about the value of the checkoff; everyone pretty much agrees we need the checkoff.

Also there is little real debate about whether NCBA has been a good partner throughout the years. NCBA was integral in defending the checkoff when it was challenged in the courts, and it does tremendous work in building beef demand through the issue management and political sides. Examples are the job it did in responding to BSE and the way it continues to confront the animal welfare, environmental, food safety/nutrition attacks; politically NCBA plays an extremely crucial role in building beef demand. Ultimately, one can’t be effective without the other.

So what is the issue? Actually there are many facets but it basically comes down to one of structure – most of which can be corrected.

The real issue is that personalities, agendas and the like have moved ahead of the checkoff’s goals of building beef demand to create an atmosphere that has become extremely toxic. The trouble is that some believe they have the leverage to win and they are committed to driving their agenda at all costs, and the consequences could be as severe as the survival or effectiveness of the checkoff. That agenda is a reshaping of the beef industry’s organizational structure to advance the political and personal goals of the few while ignoring the ideas and desires of the many.

The frustration is that cattlemen as a group want one thing – that is for the leadership to act like adults, pull together, knock off the foolishness and get back to building demand. That’s reflected in the recent letters from state organizations calling for an end to the political partisanship. This week, Wisconsin added its call to those of Alabama, Kentucky, Iowa, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas and others (you can read the Alabama, Kentucky and Wisconsin letters here). Numerous state cattlemen’s groups are passing similar resolutions and are beginning to look at grassroots approaches to send a loud and clear message that they want the train put back on the track.

The bottom line is that there are issues that can be addressed, and there are structures and processes that need to be adjusted and tweaked. But the industry will not tolerate this continued infighting. The checkoff was meant to be non-political and it is being pushed by political forces as a result of the checkoff lawsuits, GIPSA, mandatory country of origin labeling, ethanol subsidies and the like; and the result isn’t good for the industry.

The question is this: with no accountability to producers, can a politically nominated entity that answers to a politically motivated USDA be held accountable to producer wishes? I believe it can, but it will require producers to stand up and make it happen.

The path we’ve been heading down – in a worst-case scenario – puts the entire checkoff program in jeopardy. At the very least, it reduces the program’s effectiveness. Let’s get the petty nonsense and hurt feelings taken care of and let’s address the real issues, find consensus and move forward. We’ll never be 100% in agreement but we can all agree to abide by the majority interests, and I think there are very few exceptions where people don’t have the industry’s best interest at heart.

Editor’s note: For related input, see “CBB Director Offers Checkoff Commentary Perspective.