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R-CALF USA files lawsuit against beef checkoff

Montana-based cow/calf producer group claims generic beef campaigns infringe on First Amendment rights.

The Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF USA) filed suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Monday, alleging that the agency’s beef checkoff assessment, which collected more than $80 million in fiscal 2015, is being unconstitutionally used to promote international beef, to the detriment of U.S. beef products and producers.

“The government-compelled subsidy of the speech of a private entity, which is not effectively controlled by the government, is unconstitutional under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and should be enjoined,” the lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana, stated.

R-CALF USA has been vocal in recent years in its opposition of checkoff activities. One of the major conflicts came in its opposition of a Montana Beef Council partnership with Wendy’s that promoted “North American beef” in an advertising campaign. The group claimed that the money was an unlawful expenditure under the beef checkoff program because it was more than just generic advertising.

“The checkoff’s implied message that all beef is equal, regardless of where the cattle are born or how they are raised, harms U.S. farmers and ranchers and deceives U.S. citizens,” R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard said. “Despite what we know to be clear evidence about the high quality of beef raised by independent U.S. cattlemen, we are being taxed to promote a message that beef raised without the strict standards used by our members is the same as all other beef — a message we do not support and do not agree with.”

Under the checkoff, all Montana cattle producers, including R-CALF USA’s members, are required to subsidize the programs of the private Montana Beef Council. R-CALF USA contends that the beef council is closely aligned with multinational, industrial cattle producers.

Bullard added, “We’re a nonprofit association of proud, independent cattle producers from 43 different states who are committed to the safety and quality of our products. Our ranchers shouldn’t have to pay for advertising blitzes benefitting multinational operators that seek to turn our food supply over to huge corporations.”

In Montana, R-CALF USA has 375 voting members who raise cattle in Montana and, thus, pay the federal beef checkoff assessment in Montana, which funds the Montana Beef Council.

“R-CALF USA’s members in Montana do not have the same avenues available to them to advocate for their interests before the Montana Beef Council that they would before a governmentally controlled and, thus, democratically accountable body,” the suit states. “The Montana Beef Council lacks the requisite political safeguards that make compelled subsidies of government speech constitutional. In this manner, the operation of the federal beef checkoff in Montana violates R-CALF USA’s members’ First Amendment rights through forcing them to subsidize private speech that communicates a message different from what they would express and with which they disagree.”

Public Justice, an impact litigation group, is also representing R-CALF USA. David S. Muraskin, a food safety and health attorney with the organization, said, “The beef checkoff program is using federal tax dollars to convince consumers that it does not matter where their dinner came from or how it was raised. At a time of alarming food recalls and concerns about the health and safety of the food we eat, that’s both irresponsible and troubling. This suit demands an end to that deception.”

In addition to Butler and Muraskin, R-CALF USA is also represented by Montana attorney Bill Rossbach of Rossbach Law PC.

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