Iowa Public Television


Beef Checkoff Branded As Unconstitutional

posted on July 11, 2003

The United States in May closed its borders to Canadian beef because of that country's lone case of mad cow. This week, officials on both sides of the border hinted it won't be long before the ban is lifted. Canada is pressing for quick resolution, since the U.S. is its largest beef buyer. But no timetable has been set for re-opening the border.

Beyond the border dispute, U.S. beef producers face other sticky issues. Among them, litigation over mandatory checkoff program. This week, another ruling in this ongoing case was rendered.


Beef Checkoff Branded As Unconstitutional

Since 1985, cattle producers have been required to pay a $1-per-head fee to finance the beef checkoff. The mandatory assessment, which generates more than $80 (M) million annually, is earmarked for research and promotion efforts conducted by the National Cattlemen's Association, as well as state beef councils.

This week, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a 2002 lower court ruling that the mandatory beef checkoff program violates the First Amendment rights of cattle producers and, therefore, is unconstitutional. The appellate court also upheld the lower court's decision that the collection of the mandatory fees should stop.

Wayne Watkinson: "The First Amendment issue in each of these cases is really the one that's the hottest topic right now."

Wayne Watkinson is an attorney for a Washington D.C. law firm which represents nearly a dozen commodity checkoff programs. He claims the constitutionality of the assessments is likely to be challenged.

Wayne Watkinson: "Producers are a pretty independent lot. Anytime you require producers to do something there will be some who will not want to do it. So I don't know if you can ever get away from litigation. I do think that with some decisions from the Supreme Court it will stabilize these programs so they understand exactly what they need to do to operate without being subject to First Amendment arguments."

Several other commodity checkoff programs have landed in the courtroom over alleged violations of the First Amendment. A similar case involving the pork checkoff is before the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, where a decision is expected soon.

Other cases have gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But the high court hasn't always ruled to strike down the checkoffs. In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that the mushroom checkoff violated producers' First Amendment rights by forcing them to pay for messages with which they didn't agree. But the high court sustained a checkoff program for fruit trees.


Tags: agriculture animals beef cattle courts livestock Mad Cow meat news