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Supreme Court says beef checkoff not free speech violation

The Supreme Court ruled that requiring producers to contribute to the Beef Checkoff Program is not a violation of their right to free speech, thus removing a cloud that had threatened the future of "checkoff" funds for other agricultural products.

In a 6-3 vote, the court upheld the Beef Promotion and Research Act of 1985, overturning lower court decisions by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit and the U.S. District Court for South Dakota, which ruled the law unconstitutional.

After the court accepted the beef checkoff case in May 2004, 113 state and national beef industry and general agriculture organizations, including the National Cotton Council and other commodity groups, signed a friend-of-the-court Amicus brief in support of the beef checkoff.

"This is certainly a win for the many producers who recognize the power of pooled resources," said Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns after the ruling was announced May 23. "As this administration has always contended, USDA regards such programs as effective tools for market enhancement."

Review implications

The ruling means the Beef Checkoff Program can continue without interruption. Johanns said USDA is reviewing the decision to determine its implications for other first amendment challenges to checkoff programs.

Officials with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which helped defend the Beef Checkoff Program, noted that the checkoff has helped grow consumer demand by more than 25 percent since 1998 and has increased the prices producers receive for cattle.

"We are elated," said Jim McAdams, an Adkins, Texas, cattleman and president of the NCBA. "Throughout the lengthy litigation process, we believed in the merits of our case and the merits of the beef checkoff."

National Farmers Union leaders, who supported the lawsuit brought by a group of South Dakota ranchers against the beef checkoff, said they were disappointed.

"The ruling is surprising because the court ruled the mandatory beef checkoff program is a U.S. government program and the Constitution’s First Amendment free speech rights of producers funding the program do not apply," said NFU President David Frederickson. "This contradicts mandatory checkoff proponents’ arguments that the program is run and controlled by the producers."

Frederickson said the Supreme Court ruling does nothing to address the problems surrounding mandatory producer funded checkoff programs. "Issues such as accountability to producers who fund the programs, and access to open and fair referendums remain unresolved."

The majority of the nation’s cattlemen have supported a checkoff assessment since 1922.

Broad support

Independent research indicates that 73 percent of beef producers support the current $1-per-head beef checkoff program, according to the NCBA.

"It's clear that a majority of cattlemen and agricultural groups recognize that checkoff programs are good for local beef industries and economies," said Myron Williams, chairman of the Federation of State Beef Councils Division of NCBA. "Cattle-Fax estimates that the beef demand gain in just the past seven years has added about $250 per head to the value of fed cattle and $200 per head to the value of calves."

NCBA leaders said advertising tracking research indicates the checkoff is improving consumer attitudes about beef’s nutritional value. And, the checkoff’s organized and proactive public response to a single case of BSE diagnosed in the U.S. has been credited with maintaining the high level of consumer confidence in the safety of U.S. beef.

"State beef councils and their federation - a division of NCBA - are committed to protecting the brand equity built in the ‘Beef. It's What's For Dinner’ campaign," said Williams.

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