Opinion: R-CALF goes after the Beef Checkoff, again

Group launches petition drive for a vote on the checkoff’s future.

July 15, 2020

4 Min Read
U.S. beef promotion in South Korea
Getty Images/Chung Sun-Jun

Along with many beef producers, I was quite concerned when both R-CALF and OCM went after the Beef Checkoff with misinformation and lawsuits. It never occurred to me that beef producers would form alliances with activist groups that were sworn enemies of animal agriculture to fight the checkoff so painstakingly designed, voted in and run by cattlemen and cattlewomen.

OCM’s court case, despite their enthusiasm and the support of HSUS, has not made much progress in the last few years, with much legal jousting over records and disclosure. Their legal efforts against the checkoff and NCBA is continuing, some six years on.

R-CALF’s lawsuit has been based on the checkoff being unconstitutional because of its reliance on state beef councils created and run by cattlemen and cattlewomen around the country. As with the OCM’s attitude, R-CALF’s effort is based on disagreement with the will of the majority of cattle-producing families across America.

R-CALF lost its lawsuit filed in Montana but it is appealing the decision to the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco.

Perhaps R-CALF is not very confident in the chances of its appeal because it has announced an effort to gather enough signatures on a petition to call for a referendum on the Beef Checkoff. The petition would need 88,000 qualified signatures in order to require USDA to conduct a referendum.

R-CALF CEO Bill Bullard published a video clip outlining R-CALF’s claims against the checkoff.

Bullard characterizes the checkoff as a strictly government program. In his video, he charges that cattlemen were “led to believe” the checkoff was a self-help program run by cattlemen and that it was meant to build demand for “American” beef. He describes the checkoff as “antiquated.”

Bullard does not mention that cattlemen nominate all the members of the Cattlemen's Beef Board (CBB) that runs the checkoff. The Secretary of Agriculture appoints board members from the cattlemen-nominated list. He also doesn’t explain that roughly 90% of the beef the checkoff promotes is born and raised in America and all of it is USDA or USDA-equivalent inspected.

Bullard also fails to mention that the structure of the checkoff was designed by cattlemen, was fully described before the cattlemen of 1986 voted on it and there were no surprises whatsoever.

R-CALF seems perfectly willing to sacrifice the entire checkoff in part so that a small percentage of imported beef that helps fill a need for American consumers doesn’t benefit.

Bullard not only pretends that the checkoff is a standalone government program, he harps on the “government speech” description of checkoff ads and materials, again implying cattlemen have nothing to do with the promotions and research the checkoff produces.

In reality, the “government speech” description is a legal technicality outlined by the courts, stemming from the fact that the secretary appoints CBB members and USDA reviews all materials to make sure they comply with the original enabling legislation. USDA does not pick campaigns or direct funds to certain programs or decide priorities. Cattlemen and cattlewomen do that.

Bullard then does a 180 and a backflip, complaining that some of the state beef councils founded and run by cattlemen and cattlewomen are private entities.

So which is it? Is the checkoff bad because government is involved in any way or is it bad because private state beef councils are involved?

Bullard acts like having any government involvement is a terrible thing, yet cattlemen will remember that R-CALF has a habit of asking for government help when they want the border closed or the big packers broken up or a traceability program shot down or value-added carcass premiums prohibited or the percentage of cash cattle marketings mandated.

The other factor is R-CALF’s objection to the existence of NCBA. Because advertising, promotion and research requires large amounts of money and that division of NCBA, the successor to the Beef Industry Council, contracts with the CBB to provide many of those functions, Bullard is upset that checkoff money funds that work. The separate promotion division of NCBA amounts to 82% of its total budget, a figure Bullard trumpets like it is a whole new revelation. Again, cattlemen are running things but not the way R-CALF approves.

Of course, R-CALF was nowhere around when cattlemen for decades contributed voluntary dimes and quarters to fund much smaller advertising, research and education programs. They weren’t around until 1998 and then spent little attention to beef promotion and research because they didn’t then see it as a route to attacking NCBA.

In making his final pitch to get the 88,000 signatures he will need on his petition, Bullard claims a referendum would be the first time in 35 years that producers will have a say about the checkoff. That, of course, ignores the fact that cattlemen voted the checkoff into existence, that every program and every ad is vetted and selected by cattlemen and that every independent survey conducted over those 35 years have overwhelmingly voiced approval of the checkoff. 

Steve Dittmer is a longtime beef industry commentator and executive vice president of the Agribusiness Freedom Foundation. The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com or Farm Progress.


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