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Supreme Court denies petition challenging the Beef Checkoff

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

On June 27, the Supreme Court denied R-CALF USA’s (Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America) December 2021 petition challenging the implementation of the federal Beef Checkoff program. 

Case history

In May 2016, R-CALF USA sued U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), alleging the checkoff program amounted to unconstitutional “government-compelled subsidy of private speech of a private entity.” A preliminary injunction was then granted by the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana. 

For four years, Montana ranchers were required to sign consent forms to allow the Montana Beef Council to utilize their half of the checkoff dollar to promote beef. The USDA then entered into a memoranda of understanding (MOU) with 20 state beef councils including the Western states of Nebraska, South Dakota and Montana. 

In 2018, the suit was filed raising a First Amendment challenge to the administration of the checkoff in Montana. The suit suggested, although the federal government mandates all ranchers pay one dollar tax on each head of cattle to promote beef consumption, the government failed to properly regulate how the money was spent. The lawsuit suggested checkoff dollars funded “private speech” rather than “government speech.”

The case was dismissed in January 2020 when the U.S. District Court of Montana ruled in favor of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Montana Beef Council in the court case R-Calf vs. Sonny Perdue.  

In September of 2020, R-CALF USA filed a new, separate legal petition challenging amendments USDA made to the operation of the checkoff program, stating the government’s MOUs with the state beef councils did not cure constitutional violations in the program. 

The appeal was rejected by the U.S. Ninth District Court of Appeals and was then appealed through the U.S. Supreme Court. 

In July of 2021, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the district court ruling that the speech generated by the third parties for beef promotional materials was “government speech,” and therefore is exempt from First Amendment scrutiny. 

In a recent press release, R-CALF USA stated, “USDA denied R-CALF USA’s members, and ranchers everywhere, their right to weigh in on a federal program they are forced to fund.”  

R-CALF USA perspective 

R-CALF USA’s mission is to represent the U.S. cattle and sheep industries in trade and marketing issues to ensure the continued profitability and viability of independent U.S. cattle and sheep producers, according to their webpage. 

R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard hopes to prevent USDA from engaging in “unlawful” government overreach by saying, “As a federal agency, the USDA is authorized only to carry out federal statutes, and if conditions change and the implementing regulations for the statutes need to be changed, then the agency is obligated to involve the people and entities it regulates in a transparent process.”

“This is an example where the USDA, instead, is attempting to run roughshod over those it regulates,” he added in a recent press release. 

“The district court ruling rightly recognizes independent ranchers have a right through the courts to challenge a system which uses their money to prop up multinational agribusinesses,” shared David Muraskin, litigation director of the Public Justice Food Project and counsel for R-CALF USA. “USDA entered into these MOUs illegally by skipping a true public input process, which is essential to good governing. It continues to be a long fight for American ranchers who just want the level playing field they’re entitled to by law.”

Purpose of
checkoff dollars

The checkoff program was established as part of the 1985 Farm Bill. Under the program, producers and beef importers pay a one dollar-per head assessment on animals they market and equivalent on beef they import. The assessment became mandatory when the program was approved by 79 percent of producers in a 1988 national referendum vote. 

The checkoff program is dedicated to increasing the demand for beef at home and abroad. Cattlemen’s Beef Board (CBB) initiatives include consumer advertising, marketing partnerships, public relations, education, research and new product development.   

Currently, the CBB oversees the collection and spending of checkoff funds, with oversight from the USDA. In addition, Qualified State Beef Councils (QSBC) retains half of each dollar they collect for marketing and research programs in their state and other programs identified by the board. 

The CBB consists of 101 members, including beef, dairy and veal producers and importers. Each beef board member is appointed by the secretary of agriculture from nominations submitted by certified nominating organizations.  

Forty-two states have individual members serving on the board. The remainder of the states are divided into three regions.  

CBB CEO Greg Hanes shared in a written comment, “Despite the lawsuit, the Beef Checkoff has continually done what it is intended to do – build demand for beef. The Supreme Court ruling validates the Beef Checkoff care and oversight that we at the CBB carry out each and every day. We work with our national contractors to develop and fund innovative, effective programs that ensure customers continue to select beef as their protein of choice, always trying to get the most out of every checkoff dollar.” 

“Our QSBC across the country use checkoff dollars to support similar efforts every day back home,” he added. “Unfortunately, lawsuits like this can divert checkoff dollars from doing that. This new ruling will allow us to ensure all producer dollars are being spent for their intended purpose – driving beef demand – and not going toward legal fees.”  

Brittany Gunn is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to 

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