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R-CALF USA will challenge beef checkoff ruling

Cattle group contends changes required by USDA to appease judge show reform efforts are working.

R-CALF USA said it will challenge a recent magistrate judge’s granted summary judgment to the government and the 15 qualified state beef councils in the beef checkoff case R-CALF vs. Sonny Perdue.

In May 2019, R-CALF USA filed documents in the federal district court to declare beef checkoff practices unconstitutional in 15 states: Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont and Wisconsin.

The decision of the magistrate judge will now be forwarded to the federal district court for a final ruling. R-CALF USA said the magistrate judge found that while the U.S. Department of Agriculture “has been violating the Constitution in its operation of the beef checkoff program, the agency took steps to correct its violation after, and in direct response to, R-CALF USA's lawsuit.”

A key issue in the case is whether the speech of the 15 state beef checkoff councils, which cattle producers finance through their mandatory checkoff dollars, is private speech or government speech. R-CALF USA's position is that the 15 state beef councils are private corporations expressing private speech and compelling cattle producers to fund that speech is unconstitutional.

According to R-CALF USA chief executive officer Bill Bullard, USDA and the 15 private state beef councils “realized they had been caught violating the constitutional rights of cattle producers and scrambled to correct their violation.”

R-CALF USA said in a statement, “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. To accomplish this, the USDA entered into contractual agreements called memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with each of the 15 state beef councils. The MOUs purportedly give the federal government control over each of the 15 state beef councils.”

The magistrate judge then found that because of these recently executed MOUs with each of the 15 state beef councils, the speech of those councils is now the government's speech and no longer that of private corporations.

"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," Bullard said. "We will now submit our formal objections to the U.S. federal court judge and trust he will analyze this issue carefully."

Bullard said that despite this setback, there is no question that his group's lawsuit has achieved reforms over the beef checkoff's operations.

"What our lawsuit also caused was the USDA's issuance of a final rule that allows cattle producers in every state to redirect their mandatory checkoff dollars away from the state beef councils that continue to use their money to fund the activities of third parties, like the NCBA [National Cattlemen's Beef Assn.] and the USMEF (U.S. Meat Export Federation), two entities that continually lobby for the consolidation of the U.S. cattle industry," Bullard concluded.

Following the magistrate’s ruling, NCBA chief executive officer Colin Woodall said the ruling was a “crucial step toward ensuring state beef councils retain the important ability to direct their investments at the grassroots level.

“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,” Woodall said. “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.”

TAGS: Policy
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