Cattlemen Pick a Bone With the United States

     GREAT FALLS, Mont. (CN) — Millions of cattlemen’s federal tax dollars are being funneled to private organizations that support beef interests overseas, ranchers say in a lawsuit against the Secretary of Agriculture.
     The Montana-based Ranchers-Cattleman Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America is a political advocacy and trade organization representing independent cattle producers in the United States. They sued the USDA in Federal Court on Monday over the federal “Beef Checkoff” program, a national media campaign promoting the beef industry.
     The campaign is recognizable by its mantra: “Beef, It’s what’s for dinner.”
     The campaign is funded by a tax of $1 per head of cattle — or “assessment” – collected by the USDA under the Beef Promotion and Research Act. The Beef Checkoff program collected more than $80 million nationwide in 2015, the Stockgrowers says.
     They say 50 cents of every dollar collected in Montana is “turned over” to the Montana Beef Council, the state-level organization that appears to mirror the national ad campaign.
     The private organization received more than $870,000 from the federal Beef Checkoff program in 2015, $550,000 of which was spent on promotional campaigns, according to the 37-page complaint.
     The Montana Beef Council anticipates spending $1.8 million in promotional campaigns in 2016, all funded through the 50-cent portion of the $1 per head Checkoff program.
     The Stockgrowers say that using federal tax dollars to fund a private advertising campaign is unconstitutional.
     “The government—compelled subsidy of the speech of a private entity, which is not effectively controlled by the government, is unconstitutional under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and should be enjoined,” the complaint states.
     The Montana Beef Council’s own media campaign is directly connected to the national campaign: ads consist of the same large, red check mark, apparently indicating the quality of the product.
     The Stockgrowers’ other beef, so to speak, is with the message communicated through the ads, which “suggest(s) an equivalency between all beef. It does not acknowledge distinctions among beef, but rather communicates that consumers should just eat more of it, regardless of where the beef is produced,” according to the complaint.
     United Stockgrowers CEO Bill Bullard said there is a difference between beef raised in the U.S. and abroad.
     “The Checkoff’s implied message that all beef is equal, regardless of where the cattle are born or how they are raised, harms U.S. farmers and ranchers and deceives U.S. citizens,” Bullard said in a statement.
     “Despite what we know to be clear evidence about the high quality of beef raised by independent U.S. cattlemen, we are being taxed to promote a message that beef raised without the strict standards used by our members is the same as all other beef, a message we do not support and do not agree with.”
     The Stockgrowers’ attorney David Muraskin, with Public Justice in Washington, D.C., said it’s not a complicated case.
     “The core of the suit is that the U.S. government is collecting money from U.S. producers to give to an entirely private entity to do what they want,” Muraskin said in an interview. “That is a violation of the First Amendment. They are using the money to promote the idea that you should be eating any kind of beef. But eating beef raised here in the U.S. is safer and promotes the domestic beef industry.”
     For example, Muraskin said, federal regulations help prevent herds from “mad cow” disease, and funneling the 50 cents per head to private organizations manipulates the industry and consumers into ignoring laxer regulations in other countries.
     “This is a way that corporate, multinational corporations can manipulate the expenditures of the money,” Muraskin said. “The [national] Beef Board and Beef Committee control the national money, and what they have done is to arrange to give 50 percent at the state levels to better promote their interests.”
     The national Beef Board and Beef Committee exist under the Department of Agriculture and are prohibited from referring to brand or trade names, but the Montana Beef Council was able to enter into a “partnership” with Wendy’s fast food chain to promote the “Ciabatta Cheeseburger” through ad campaigns that touted cattle raised in North America, the Stockgrowers say.
     “Wendy’s made no commitment that the beef would come from cattle raised in Montana or even the United States,” the complaint states. “Nonetheless, the Montana Beef Council trumpeted this campaign as part of Montana’s ‘Beef Checkoff investment.'”
     The Stockgrowers say beef in the United States can come from 41 other countries.
     Montana Beef Council executive director Chaley Harney said she “can’t comment about the suit or speculate about the statements in the filing.”
     The Montana Beef Council is not a party to the lawsuit.
     The USDA did not respond to a request for comment.
     The Stockgrowers ask the court to declare the federal Beef Checkoff program unconstitutional and enjoin USDA from allowing the Montana Beef Council to “utilize assessments collected under the federal beef checkoff unless and until the operation … is brought into line with the United States Constitution.”
     They also seek costs and attorneys’ fees.

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