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Beef checkoff, state councils win legal victory in RCALF lawsuit

SD Ag Connection & News Staff - April 2, 2020

HELENA, Mont. – The Beef Checkoff program and fifteen grassroots-led state beef councils won a major court victory when the United States District Court of Montana ruled in favor of USDA and the Montana Beef Council in the matter of R-CALF vs. Sonny Perdue and USDA.

On Friday, March 27th, Judge Brian Morris denied R-CALF’s request for an injunction to stop certain state beef councils from collecting checkoff dollars.

In his ruling in favor of USDA and the Montana Beef Council, Morris cited that USDA has entered into Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) with state beef councils that give USDA significant discretion to approve or reject any  promotional activities. Under the MOU’s state beef councils agree to submit to USDA for pre-approval all promotion, advertising, information and research plans and projects.

The ruling was not a surprise according to R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard, who characterized it as a “disappointment.” Concerns of state beef councils now being able to operate under the MOU’s in continuum are valid, says Bullard.  He adds that a lack of accountability to the federal government over the use of check off funds by NCBA and the U.S. Meat Export Federation also remains a concern.  

NCBA praised the court's decision, which ends a legal battle that has spanned more than three years and interrupted beef promotion functions in Montana. The case had threatened local input and promotion efforts at the state level across the country.

"The foundation of the Beef Checkoff has always been state beef councils that collect checkoff funds and determine how those investments are used for research, marketing and promotion efforts in individual states. Those efforts are directed by the same cattlemen and cattlewomen who pay the checkoff, so this victory goes a long way toward ensuring they continue to direct those investments," said NCBA CEO Colin Woodall.

The legal wrangling began in 2016, when R-CALF filed a complaint in Federal District Court against USDA and Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue. The group argued that because some state beef councils are not elected or appointed by the government, they are not producing government speech. R-CALF said beef councils are private organization and cattlemen should not be required to fund private speech.

In June of 2017, Judge Morris granted R-CALF a preliminary injunction preventing the Montana Beef Council from collecting checkoff dollars, unless a cattle producer provided a prior affirmative consent authorizing the Beef Council to retain half of the producer’s assessment.  If a producer did not provide a consent form, all of their checkoff funds went directly to the Cattlemen’s Beef Board.

A year later, R-CALF moved to expand the lawsuit to apply to 14 more state beef councils. Judge Morris granted the motion to expand the lawsuit to include Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

When the USDA and state beef councils crafted the Memorandums of Understanding, it gave the federal government much more control over the checkoff program.  And the case took a different turn.

R-CALF has 60 days to decide whether or not to appeal the court’s decision.

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