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Montana unit of federal Beef Checkoff ordered to stand down

One of the state units of the federal Cattleman’s Beef Production and Research Board (Beef Board)  will be effectively sidelined if a federal magistrate judge’s order is allowed to take effect.

In a series of preliminary rulings that went almost entirely against federal Beef Board, U.S. Magistrate Judge John Johnston granted a motion by the Rancher-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund-United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF) to prevent the Montana Beef Council from spending money it receives from the federal Beef Checkoff program for advertising unless the cattle producers putting up the money have agreed to it.

R-CALF_406x250Johnston’s ruling is silent on research spending by the state beef council. The Beef Checkoff program has been a significant source of funding for food safety research.

The magistrate’s ruling, which is subject to review by a U.S. District Court judge, found R-CALF has standing to pursue its claims in federal court. Johnson did not rule on R-CALF’s allegation that the federal government effectively controls the Montana Beef Council.

A $1 per head transfer fee, imposed on each cattle sale, was established by the Beef Promotion and Research Act of 1985. The money, for marketing and research, is divided between the federal Beef Board and qualified state beef councils and is usually known simply as “the Checkoff.”

The Billings, MT-based R-CALF filed the current lawsuit on May 2, claiming the Checkoff is going to fund the private speech of the Montana Beef Council, which the independent cattle and sheep producers disagree with. They argue the use of federal funds to fund private speech is unconstitutional.

R-CALF favors beef marketing campaigns that are built around promoting American products.

The defendant in the lawsuit is Tom Vilsack, the soon to be replaced Secretary of Agriculture.

In past litigation involving the Checkoff, courts have found the Secretary of Agriculture has sufficient control over the state beef councils that their campaigns are “government speech,” not “private speech.”

At this point, only Montana is impacted by the magistrate’s order. Qualified state beef boards must adhere to rules established by the federal Beef Board. Recently, beef producers were given the option of requesting that their entire Checkoff assessment go to the federal Beef Board, rather than seeing half of their money go to the Montana Beef Council.

R-CALF is frequently at odds with the larger National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which also manages the federal Beef Board.

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