Cattle producers for 35 years have been bankrolling one of the nation's most iconic marketing campaigns, but now many want to end the program that created the “Beef. It's What's for Dinner” slogan. What's the ranchers' beef? It's that their mandatory fee of $1 per head of cattle sold is not specifically promoting American beef at a time when imports are flooding the market and plant-based, “fake meat” products are proliferating in grocery stores, per the AP. “The American consumer is deceived at the meat counter and our checkoff funds do not do anything to help create clarity or answer the question of where was that sirloin born, raised and harvested,” said Karina Jones, a Nebraska cattle rancher and field director for the R-CALF USA trade group that is seeking to end the checkoff.
Opponents of the beef checkoff program, which was established by federal law in 1986, are urging cattle producers to a sign a petition calling for a referendum vote on terminating the program. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last month granted an extension until Oct. 3 for them to collect the required signatures due to the coronavirus pandemic. Petition supporters argue the beef checkoff is a government-mandated assessment to fund government speech. Beef checkoff funds by law cannot be used to advertise against other meats such as pork or chicken, nor can they be used for lobbying. But they complain much of the money nonetheless props up lobbying groups such as the National Cattlemen's Beef Association that oppose mandatory country-of-origin labels.
They also point out that today’s U.S. cattle industry is radically different than it was when the checkoff program was put into place, with more imported beef and greater meatpacker concentration. “Now we are paying the advertising bill for four major meatpacking plants that are able to import beef and source it from cheaper countries and fool our consumers,” Jones said. The petition has created a schism in the livestock industry between those who support the checkoff and those who don’t.
But consumers have a stake in the fight as well. One way to look at this is that consumers probably should not like the checkoff program because it raises their beef prices, and some consumer groups are opposed to it for that reason, said Harry Kaiser, director of Cornell University's Commodity Promotion Research Program. Another way to look at it is that the checkoff also funds research into beef safety and the development of new beef products, he said. “Consumers pay a few pennies more, but it is a safer product, a better quality product,” Kaiser said. Kaiser, who conducts research for the U.S. Agriculture Department on commodity advertising and promotion programs, wrote in an economic analysis that domestic beef demand between 2014 and 2018 would have been 14.3% lower without the consumer advertising and other promotional activities of the Cattlemen's Beef Promotion and Research Board. In 2019, the board had a budget of $40.5 million to spend on activities that aim to increase beef demand. (Read more beef industry stories.)