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Supreme Court Rules Beef Checkoff Constitutional

DENVER -- In a long-anticipated decision for the nation's beef industry, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled that the Beef Checkoff Program is constitutional, thus allowing the program's demand-building efforts to continue.

In the six-three ruling, the justices upheld the mandatory $1-per-head checkoff assessments the cattle industry pays to fund the "Beef: It's What's for Dinner" advertising campaign, on the grounds that it's a valid program of "government speech" directed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The ruling rejected arguments that the checkoff program violates constitutionally protected speech rights and sets aside an appeals court decision while returning the case to the lower court to consider other arguments against the fees.

Commenting on the ruling, Randy Irion, director of retail marketing for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), told Progressive Grocer: "We're delighted that the Supreme Court has seen fit to acknowledge the constitutionality of the checkoff program, which will allow us to continue working with retailers to build consumer demand for beef, inclusive of our current summer grilling program that has gotten off to a great start."

Jim McAdams, an Adkins, Texas cattleman and the president of NCBA, was even more effusive when remarking on the ruling. "We are elated. Throughout the lengthy litigation process, we believed in the merits of our case and the merits of the beef checkoff. We anticipated a positive decision. This is a victory for all producers who want demand-building efforts in beef safety, nutrition, and promotion continued."

Irion said while cattlemen have supported a checkoff assessment since 1922, recent research conducted in January 2005 indicated that 73 percent of beef producers supported the $1-per-head beef checkoff program.

The checkoff program went into effect in 1985 and raised more than $80 million annually, which is split between the Cattlemen's Beef Promotion and Research Board and state beef councils. According to the Cattlemen's Beef Promotion and Research Board, the checkoff program has helped grow consumer demand for beef more than 25 percent since 1998 and has increased the prices that producers receive for their cattle.

Justice Antonin Scalia delivered the majority opinion and was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Stephen Breyer, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Not all farm and beef producer groups were pleased with the ruling, among which is the Kansas City, Mo.-based Livestock Marketing Association (LMA), which said it was "deeply disappointed" by the Supreme Court's decision to allow the beef checkoff to continue. Said Randy Patterson, LMA president: "Given the two strong decisions supporting our position, from the federal district court and the court of appeals, we had high hopes the Supreme Court would have decided otherwise. However, we respect the legal system and the court's deliberations in this case, and we reluctantly accept their decision and will move on from here."

Noting that LMA initiated the challenge to the checkoff in an effort to give America's producers greater say over how their checkoff dollars would be spent, and by whom, Patterson said his group is hopeful "that message will not be lost with the USDA, the Cattlemen's Beef Board, and other beef industry leaders. We hope they try and become more inclusive of differing views, and make sure that producers large and small, and from every sector, have a greater voice in checkoff affairs."

Industry observers say a National Pork Board-administered checkoff program that's also awaiting a Supreme Court decision could benefit from yesterday's ruling, as well.

--Meg Major
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