by Kayla Sargent
After a long litigation process, summary judgement has been granted to USDA, Montana Beef Council (MBC), and the fourteen other state councils in the R-CALF USA vs. Sonny Perdue lawsuit. This is only a step in the legal process and proceedings are sure to follow – some checkoff supporters cautiously praised the announcement and R-CALF plans to challenge it.
R-CALF filed suit against the USDA arguing that MBC and other state councils are in violation of the first amendment. The group argues that producers, who are required to pay a dollar per head fee for cattle sold, are forced to fund private speech as the included state beef councils are not overseen by a government entity. The summary judgement issued by United States Magistrate Judge John Johnston suggests that the state beef councils are, however, “answerable” to the USDA through an approval process.
R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard argued that Magistrate Judge Johnston found the USDA had been guilty of first amendment violations and only took steps to right the wrongs after the suit was filed. Bullard said the USDA entered into memorandums of understanding (MOU) with 15 state beef councils that gives the agency oversight, but this “strategy, which unfolded well after the lawsuit was filed, was an attempt to convert the council’s heretofore private speech into government speech.”
“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,” he said. “We will now submit our formal objections to the U.S. federal court judge and trust he will analyze this issue carefully.”
Montana Stockgrowers Association (MSGA) First Vice President Jim Steinbeisser said in reading the recommendations issued on January 29, he believed Magistrate Judge Johnston offered a “solid opinion.” Steinbeisser, a producer from Sidney, Montana, is a strong supporter of the beef checkoff, feels he has benefitted from the work of the MBC and said he is encouraged by the summary judgement.
“It’s a big win for those of us that are checkoff supporters,” he said. “But, it’s just a step in the process. It’s certainly good news, but we need to be very cautiously optimistic. This is not over by any stretch, it could be a year or even more before we ultimately know.”
In the meantime, Montana producers must sign a consent form for half of their checkoff dollar to be returned to the MBC as a result of the lawsuit filed in 2016. This step has cut the MBC budget by more than 60 percent since then.
Steinbeisser said both as a producer in the state and a contractor to the MBC with MSGA, the budget cut has been “very obvious.” For example, MSGA submitted a proposal to do an extensive ad campaign which included billboards, radio spots, newspaper ads, and social media plugs promoting real beef in contrast to the latest rise of “fake meat.”
“That was put on hold simply because they’ve got to draw the line some place,” Steinbeisser said. “That was one of the lines they drew. So, yes, as an organization that applies for checkoff funding, we’ve seen a huge change.”
This is frustrating for Steinbeisser, especially in a time when media moves so quickly online and through social media.
“Just a little, clever campaign against beef, saying it’s bad for the environment in whichever various way, can have quite an effect. Usually, they can reach people’s heartstrings with one paragraph and to refute that usually takes three or four. It can be a challenge, I think we’re getting better at it though,” he said.
But those efforts, even when pursued by an organization, are stronger with the help of promotion, research, and education developed by the beef checkoff, according to Steinbeisser. As a past member of the MBC, he said the group is very diverse and represents many segments of Montana’s beef industry. Representatives from multiple organizations and areas of the state come together to determine how the council’s budget is apportioned each year.
Seeing the work of the MBC firsthand, Steinbeisser said he was “troubled” by the injunction that forced producers to sign to return money to the state council. He felt a better approach may have been to allow producers to opt out, rather than consent to have money returned.
“It should run the other way in my eyes,” he said. “If you don’t like what’s going on, sign something to change how your money is being spent and handled. But those of us who are happy with it participate in it.”
He encouraged producers to get involved and participate. Steinbeisser said when he represented Montana on the Federation of State Beef Councils, he was “amazed” at the “openness of those committees and how the decisions are made.” He found it frustrating that prior to the lawsuit, “some of the people most opposed to this had not been participating.”
Steinbeisser said personally, he believes that the checkoff could undergo some changes – aside from an increase in the fee, “which there dang sure should be.” One issue R-CALF has expressed with the checkoff is that is does not promote U.S. beef exclusively. Steinbeisser suggested that organizational affiliations aside, there are probably more producers who would agree with that. But he believes the best route to change is through participation and conversation.
“Let’s sit down and have a real conversation. Let’s talk about how we want this checkoff to move forward,” Steinbeisser said.
Bullard said the lawsuit has already resulted in what his organization sees as positive reforms. Despite the setback of the summary judgement, which R-CALF will now challenge, the group is encouraged by parts of the ruling that show progress is being made.
“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 National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and the United States Meat Export Federation – two entities that continually lobby for the consolidation of the U.S. cattle industry,” Bullard concluded.
NCBA called the summary judgement a win for beef industry and said it will allow “state beef councils to continue the important work of beef promotion and research.”