Have we outlived the real usefulness of the Checkoff?


Originally written for the High Plains Journal Dec 15, 2019
How is that working for ya?
In the past 20 years I have come to learn that the two most divisive conversations you can have within our community are about Checkoff Programs and mandatory Country of Origin Labeling (mCOOL). Today I am most likely addressing both. I have always been a fan of the Checkoff and this case I am going to speak particularly of the Beef Checkoff, although the discussion is not isolated to beef. You started reading this with a clear opinion that either you agree or disagree. Please drop all preconceived notions and read this as a person who wants to hear what I have to say and then think about it. That is all I ask.
It is after thousands of miles of windshield time and countless discussions with trusted friends in beef production that I have come to the conclusion that the beef checkoff needs to sunset. Yes, I believe the mandatory federal program needs to cease and desist. By now the current 99 members of Cattlemen’s Beef Board, 110 employees of NCBA and countless staff members of State Beef Councils and the Federation of State Beef Council members have just checked out because I hit too close to home. For those who want to see what we risk if we continue with the status quo, please be brave enough to read on.
How about we turn to the man at the helm of Beef Checkoff, Greg Hanes, CEO of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, for a bit of a history lesson. He wrote this two months ago and does give a great perspective of the history of the beef checkoff.
The Beef Checkoff was created through the Beef Promotion and Research Act of 1985 as part of the Farm Bill. It was initiated as an effort driven by producers who saw an important need for more promotion and research to stave off falling beef demand in the late 1970s / 1980s and was designed to be producer driven at both a local and national level.
To ensure all aspects of this law are followed, the USDA is delegated authority by Congress to oversee the Beef Checkoff Program. As part of its oversight responsibilities, USDA reviews and approves our plans, projects, budgets, contracts, processes and procedures, and keeps a watchful eye over our financials, our board, our communications, and our operations. In fact, the Secretary of Agriculture himself appoints all 99 CBB board members, which includes both domestic producers and importers, a process outside of our purview.
I might also add, just for clarification, that currently the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service oversees 22 research and promotion boards, which consists of large and small producers, importers, and other commodity stakeholders.
Now back at the turn of the century, court challenges to the checkoff were coming. In fact, 3 seperate court challenges were the focus of the nation. Although in the third checkoff decision, the Court determined advertisements promoting beef as a generic commodity were “government speech” and thus not susceptible to First Amendment compelled-subsidy challenges. The Court did, however, hold open the possibility that the beef checkoff program could be unconstitutional if it is shown that the advertisements are attributable to individual producers who disagree with the message.
In a nutshell, it was ruled that “Beef: It's What's For Dinner” was not the speech of a private trade association, but rather a message from the U.S. government. As government speech, checkoff advertising is, therefore, exempt from First Amendment scrutiny.
Now let’s look beyond the Trump administration, because you know as well as I do that eventually we will have someone in The White House that does not see the merit of cattle or beef consumption. If checkoff dollars are, in fact, “Government Speech,” are you comfortable with what might happen? We have already had the USDA declare, during the Obama administration, that Meatless Monday was a good thing.
In fact, I contend that we are already feeling the negative effects. Modern science clearly shows that protein and animal fats are essential in a healthy human diet. Yet we, with BEEF CHECKOFF dollars, can not promote the fat aspect of marbling, because USDA must approve every single message we send out. USDA does not recognize real science but instead continues to disregard the modern research as that very department attempts to set new dietary guidelines.
I have more examples of check-off problems than space will allow me to share. Let me close with a grim fact: the nation's largest sector of agriculture, “beef,” must try to compete with challenging protein sources (non-animal) with a mere $42,560,297.00 annually at the Federal level. It is reported that a single 30 second ad during the 2020 Super Bowl in Miami will cost $5.6 million. While I recognize that is half of the total, but to my point even if we double the promotion dollars in each state, we are not keeping up with the market prices of the day.
My goal with this position is simply to prompt a discussion with cattle owners that we have not had before. Are we content in having such a limited budget to market the world's best beef product? Are we willing to continue to have USDA and big government approve every single message we send to the public. As the checkoff currently stands, there is no way it should continue. I don’t know if you need direction on this or not but maybe we should ask our friends in the dairy business how well that has worked for them, if any of them are still in business!

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