A group that represents independent cattle ranchers wants more say in how beef is marketed in the United States.
The Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America — or R-CALF USA — filed a lawsuit this spring questioning the fact that half of the $1-per-head "beef checkoff" fee is given to the privately incorporated Montana Beef Council.
R-CALF argues that its producers are being forced to subsidize the council's promotions, which do not distinguish between domestic and foreign beef.
"This is not just a violation of freedom of speech, it's a violation of the freedom of association," said David Muraskin, a Washington, D.C., attorney representing R-CALF USA. "It's an issue of forced association."
R-CALF USA includes cattle ranchers and feedlot operators in 42 states. It has 375 voting members in Montana.
The Montana Beef Council includes people aligned with some of the largest multinational, industrial cattle producers, which purchase and raise cattle both domestically and internationally, the complaint said.
Since 1985, beef producers have paid a $1 federal tax for every animal sold to promote the marketing and consumption of beef. In Montana, the money is delivered to the Montana Beef Council, which forwards half of the proceeds to the Cattlemen's Beef Board — which is overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — for investment in national checkoff programs.
The Montana Beef Council received more than $870,000 in federal beef checkoff money between October 2014 and September 2015, the R-CALF complaint said. Around $550,000 was spent on promotional campaigns while more than $300,000 was spent on administrative costs — far exceeding the Cattlemen's Beef Board, which is allowed to spend only 5 percent of its funds on administrative expenses, the lawsuit argues.
R-CALF USA argues its producers raise their cattle domestically and comply with the United States' rigorous safety and quality standards, but have no standing to encourage the Montana Beef Council to market beef raised in the U.S. separately. In fact, the complaint argues, independent ranchers have to spend more money to educate consumers about U.S. beef.
Polling over the last decade consistently shows that the majority of consumers want to know their food's country of origin, the complaint said.
Michelle Bennet, an attorney for the USDA, said beef producers can request that all of their checkoff dollars be sent to the national Cattlemen's Beef Board, but there is little record of Montana producers filing such a request.
The independent producers argue that having the Montana Beef Council collect the tax, even temporarily, violates the First Amendment.
U.S. Magistrate John Johnston of Great Falls heard arguments Tuesday and said he would rule later, the Great Falls Tribune reported.