This West Is OUR West

Judge Rules Ranchers Can't Be Forced To Fund USDA's 'Beef: It's What's for Dinner' Ad Campaign


Black and Brown Cows Looking at Camera, Cattle Ranch, Calf, Calves in Summer Pasture (Credit: ArtBitz/Shutterstock)

Tim Pearce

June 30, 2017

The United States Department of Agriculture’s Beef Checkoff Program violates ranchers’ First Amendment rights by subsidizing a private company’s marketing campaign, a Montana judge ruled June 21.

The United States District Court for the District of Montana upheld an injunction forbidding the USDA from subsidizing the Montana Beef Council (MBC) with money from Montana cattlemen, according to court documents.

The Ranchers Cattlemen Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF USA) group brought the suit against the USDA

“For well over a decade R-CALF USA members fought to reform what we considered a terribly mismanaged national beef checkoff program,” R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard said in a press release. “After a meaningful, law-based evaluation of our concerns, we won. We hope this will be just the first step of correcting over a decade’s worth of beef checkoff program mismanagement.”

While the lawsuit could have much wider implications later, the immediate effect is Montana ranchers now have more control over who spends their tax dollars. The MBC cannot collect anymore USDA checkoff subsidies unless Montana ranchers give explicit consent.

Checkoff programs were established to help commodity industries with high cost investment. Agriculture industries made largely of small operation ranchers and farmers lack the concentrated capital and organization of most industries, making things like research and development and national advertising difficult for the industry, The New Food Economy reports.

Individual producers pay a tax on each unit they sell, $1 per head of cattle sold for ranchers. That money is used by the USDA and state organizations fund major industry investments. The USDA claims the checkoff programs can provide a return as high as 1,800 percent in some cases.

Bullard accuses the USDA of colluding with large, industrial meat processors to take advantage of the small producers forced to pay into the program, however. Large organizations are using the Beef Checkoff Program to take advantage of diversified small operators rather than advance the entire industry’s interest.