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051015 Beef Checkoff Battle Ended

October 22, 2005

A Montana ranching couple said they are finished fighting the U.S. Department of Agriculture over a $1- per-head fee on cattle. Steve and Jeanne Charter have asked a federal judge here to dismiss their case and end an 8-year battle over the beef checkoff.

The couple said that pursuing the matter further in court would have been expensive and futile, particularly in light of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in May that upheld the fee and the government's right to force ranchers to pay it.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard the Charter case, said there was still room for the Shepherd-area cattle producers to challenge the checkoff as unconstitutional for the way it's carried out. But an attorney for the Charters, Kelly Varnes, said proving that would have been difficult. For example, the ranchers would have had to prove that they - as individual producers - were tied to the message disseminated by beef ads funded with checkoff dollars.

"It became apparent to us that that was a hurdle we probably could not overcome," he said Thursday. A motion to dismiss was filed in federal court in Billings on Wednesday, and it was supported by the government.

Jeanne Charter said that, even if the couple would have won, the victory would've rung hollow because it would have only applied to their situation and not to the industry as a whole.

The checkoff program was approved by Congress and made mandatory on an industry vote. Livestock producers have been required to pay it since 1988 on cattle they sell, with the money used to help fund beef promotion, consumer education and research. The checkoff generates about $80 million a year. Half the money collected in the states goes to the Cattlemen's Beef Board and half to qualified state beef councils.

The "Beef. It's What's for Dinner" ad campaign is probably the most recognizable checkoff-funded effort.

The Charters refused to pay the fee on 250 cattle they sold in 1997 and 1998. They argued the checkoff program violated their rights as independent producers by forcing them to pay for advertising with which they didn't necessarily agree. They have since paid the required fees, with interest, into escrow, Jeanne Charter said.

The couple particularly objects to the involvement of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which is the largest of several contractors used to help carry out checkoff-funded efforts. Monte Reese, the beef board's chief operating officer, said some producers confuse that role with NCBA's more political, policy- related side, even though he says they're completely separate.

Helping cattle producers understand that, and just what their checkoff dollars are used for, has taken on new importance, he said, particularly in light of recent legal challenges to the beef and other checkoff programs.

"We believe the checkoff, if it's successful in increasing demand for beef, then all producers should benefit," Reese said.

A producer survey this summer found 73 percent support for the checkoff, which Reese said was the highest in years. He said he was unaware of any moves within the industry to hold another vote on the fee.


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