DENVER, CO--Beef producers should feel confident their checkoff dollars are working to promote beef, even as the industry fights what could be a lengthy litigation process against the beef checkoff, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) said Nov. 13.

Response briefs from three litigants in a South Dakota U.S. District Court case that challenges the constitutionality of the beef checkoff were turned in Friday, Nov. 9, and a hearing has been tentatively scheduled for Dec. 20 in Aberdeen, SD.

The challenge to the beef checkoff's constitutionality was raised by the Livestock Marketing Association (LMA), the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) and three individuals in an earlier petition. Defendants in the case are the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Cattlemen's Beef Promotion and Research Board (which administers checkoff funds) and Nebraska Cattlemen, Inc., which is leading a group of supportive producers who are intervenors on behalf of the checkoff.

According to Lynn Cornwell, NCBA president and a beef producer from Glasgow, MT, the attacks on the checkoff will not deter producers who want to see the program continue.

"With beef supplies predicted to be at an all-time high fourth quarter of 2001, it's not the time to be diverting attention from real industry issues that affect producer bottom lines," Cornwell said. "For instance, the Cattlemen's Beef Board, NCBA and state beef councils are conducting checkoff funded efforts to move the record beef production. We're committed to using checkoff dollars in the manner for which they were intended, to promote beef."

"NCBA is not against a producer's right to vote," Cornwell said, "but producers already spoke on the issue of continuing the checkoff program when not even 10% legitimately signed an LMA petition requesting a referendum. Furthermore, independent surveys conducted twice a year indicate that support for the checkoff has never dropped below 60%. In July 2001, 72% of producers said they support the checkoff. LMA's actions have taken the direction of our industry out of the hands of producers and put it in the hands of the courts."

Cornwell noted all previous constitutional challenges to the $1-per-head beef checkoff have been defeated, and expressed confidence that ultimately the constitutionality of the program would be upheld and its value reconfirmed.

"This suit is just the latest effort in a string of failed attempts to stop the 'Beef. It's What's for Dinner' campaign, not to mention the progress the beef checkoff has clearly made in building a positive marketing environment for beef," he said. "To have the producers' 'Beef. It's What's For Dinner' program and the equity it's built with consumers taken away would be a travesty."

The pending litigation also challenges a host of other checkoff-funded efforts that have been crucial to the beef industry's success in recent years, Cornwell said. He pointed to checkoff-funded food safety and nutrition education efforts that have increased consumer confidence in beef, despite extensive publicity surrounding European outbreaks of BSE and foot-and-mouth disease earlier this year.

According to Cornwell, LMA and WORC through their legal maneuverings have taken a backdoor approach to destroy the checkoff and undermine the democratic foundation on which it is built. Furthermore, deceptive communications about what the program is about have been harmful to the beef producers LMA claims to represent.

"Even though the checkoff is created by law and has USDA oversight, it's beef producers who direct beef checkoff programs," he said. "Hundreds of cattlemen, dairymen, veal producers and even livestock market operators sit on state and national boards making the decisions that make this effort go. This is the way the checkoff has operated for 15 years. Nothing has changed."

Cornwell pointed out the Secretary of Agriculture appoints Beef Board members who have been nominated by state organizations. Only beef promotion, research and information programs can be conducted with checkoff dollars, and no lobbying can be funded.

"What LMA and other groups are trying to do could destroy progress producers have made both in state and national efforts to build demand. Their court action indicates they want to destroy all state and national commodity checkoffs, " Cornwell said. "Their counter-productive work won't keep us from maintaining focus on creating better consumer demand for our end product--beef."

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