The battle against the Beef Checkoff program has raged on, but has been halted for the time being. Montana Magistrate Judge John Johnston issued a summary judgment Jan. 29 in favor of the government in the case R-CALF v. Perdue.

The case traces back to last summer, when Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF USA) asked the federal district court to rule the Beef Checkoff program was unconstitutional.

On Jan. 29, the magistrate judge granted summary judgment to the government and 15 associated state beef councils.

“We are pleased with today’s opinion, which allows state beef councils to continue the important work of beef promotion and research,” said Colin Woodall, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) CEO, in a released statement. “Although this case is far from complete, this was a crucial step toward ensuring state beef councils retain the important ability to direct their investments at the grassroots level.”

The decision will now be sent to the federal district court for a final ruling, where either party can appeal the district court judge’s final opinion. This process could take several months or longer.

“The Beef Checkoff continues to provide important benefits for cattle producers in the form of research and promotion that returns nearly $12 for every dollar invested in the program. The Beef Checkoff is weakened, and the benefits it provides our industry are put in jeopardy, by lawsuits such as this one,” said Woodall. “We’re committed to defending state beef councils from these attacks and ensuring producers at the grassroots level continue to determine how checkoff dollars are invested in their states.”

In response to the judge’s summary judgement, an R-CALF press release said despite the setback, there is “no question that [R-CALF CEO Bill Bullard’s] group’s lawsuit has achieved reforms over the Beef Checkoff’s operations.”

Bullard said the USDA and the 15 beef councils “realized they had been caught violating the constitutional rights of cattle producers and scrambled to correct their violation,” in the form of entering contractual agreements.

“Bullard said their strategy, which unfolded well after the lawsuit was filed, was an attempt to convert the council’s heretofore private speech into government speech, in hopes they could correct their decades-long violation of the Constitution,” according to the press release.

He alleges they did this in the form of memorandums of understanding (MOUs) between USDA and the 15 state councils, which gives the USDA final say over each of the council’s promotional materials.

“We continue to disagree that the execution of these 15 MOUs is sufficient to remedy the USDA’s 30-plus years of violating the Constitution,” said Bullard adding, “We will now submit our formal objections to the U.S. federal court judge and trust he will analyze this issue carefully.”

Bullard concluded the lawsuit caused USDA to issue a final rule to allow cattle producers in every state to redirect their mandatory checkoff dollars away from state beef councils that “fund the activities of third parties, like the NCBA and the U.S. Meat Export Federation, two entities that continually lobby for the consolidation of the U.S. cattle industry.”

Case background

In the lawsuit, R-CALF argued that although the federal government mandates all ranchers pay $1 per head of cattle to promote beef consumption, the government has failed to properly regulate how the money has been spent, according to R-CALF’s legal counsel Public Justice.

R-CALF originally brought the suit against the Montana Beef Council, and eventually added 14 other states into the mix: Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

Beef Checkoff logo

Initially, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an injunction for R-CALF in April 2018 against USDA using checkoff money to fund beef promotion without first receiving Montana producers’ permission. The group then claimed the 14 additional state beef councils were also private entities using checkoff money to fund their private speech.

A final ruling will come in the upcoming months to determine the future of the Beef Checkoff program. — Anna Miller, WLJ editor

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