Citing lack of progress on a succession of legislative and regulatory fronts, the Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM) is now looking to the courts. During the group's annual meeting last week, Fred Stokes, OCM president and director, announced that OCM and the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) were joining forces to seek an injunction against USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, Cattlemen’s Beef Board and the Beef Promotion Operating Committee, with the aim of ending the use of checkoff funds by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), the major contractor to the checkoff.

On Friday, a lawsuit was filed in District Court in Kansas seeking a court order prohibiting any beef promotion program dollars to go to NCBA. The lawsuit alleges that the NCBA receives a large majority of checkoff-funded projects, and alleges that the CBB operating committee awards the contracts to NCBA and that 10 of the 20 seats on the committee are held by NCBA members.

Among HSUS’s contributions to the effort were legal expertise and funding, Stokes said during a press conference last week. OCM had filed a Freedom of Information Act request for checkoff documents, following which HSUS legal experts advised a lawsuit. OCM was then able to engage the Polsenelli Shugart law firm to take on the case on a pro bono basis.

"NCBA has essentially taken all of our own money – that we have been forced to pay in to the checkoff by law – and used it to lobby Congress for an agricultural system, an industrialized cattle system that is contrary to the independent cattle producer's interest," Mike Callicrate, a Kansas cattle feeder and OCM vice president, told the Associated Press on Friday.

But what seemed to draw the most industry reaction was OCM’s decision to partner with HSUS in the effort. Stokes defended the move by saying that “HSUS understands the family farmer and rancher was kinder to farm animals than the corporate farms. … they want to be a party to an alliance or coalition to see that this little remnant of independent family agriculture remains and we are very eager to accept that support."

Interestingly, however, the latest survey of producer attitudes regarding the checkoff – released just two weeks ago – found that 75% of producer respondents support the checkoff and its work, a level that’s remained fairly stable over time. What’s more, only 15% of respondents in the latest survey said they disapprove of the checkoff.

In addition, more than 80% think the program plays a positive role in influencing consumer demand for beef. And 70% agree with the idea that the program has helped contribute to the profitability of their operation over time, and two-thirds give positive marks to checkoff management as well. That begs the question, who exactly are OCM and their HSUS pals trying to save?

Closer Look: Confidence in checkoff remains strong

NCBA, which is the dominant producer organization in the U.S. by far, counters that it represents operations of all sizes. It responded that while OCM claims to advocate for a fair, competitive agricultural marketplace, “producers should know that OCM is working with an extremist animal rights group to disable a program dedicated to building demand for beef.”

“HSUS is an organization going state by state vowing to end production agriculture by outlawing scientifically validated production practices in animal agriculture. Their efforts put people out of business and often jeopardize the well-being of livestock,” said J.D. Alexander, NCBA president and a farmer-feeder from Pilger, NE. “Animal agriculture is vital to sustaining food production and we will not sit by and allow these organizations to stifle our ability to mitigate hunger and feed people here and abroad.”

Industry Resource Page: Animal activist groups

Meanwhile, the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association (USCA), a group that spun off from R-CALF several years ago, also condemned the OCM alliance with HSUS.

"USCA will not support OCM's willing involvement of HSUS, a known opponent of U.S. ranchers and animal agriculture, in this lawsuit partnership," said Leo McDonnell, USCA director, Columbus, MT. "We doubt that HSUS has any true concerns about how checkoff dollars are administered and, in fact, if the organization's long-term goal is to eliminate animal agriculture, then the complete demise of commodity checkoffs supports that plan. While cattle producers have serious concerns about the beef checkoff, these issues would be better handled within the industry and by the industry itself.”

Jon Wooster, USCA president, added that USCA is “disappointed that OCM has felt the need to work cooperatively with HSUS, an organization that reportedly already faces charges under RICO statutes on racketeering, obstruction of justice and malicious prosecution in a law suit brought by Ringling Brothers Circus' parent company Feld Entertainment, Inc. We are disappointed than OCM has chosen to align themselves with this group which has certainly demonstrated their animosity to animal agriculture and cost our industry countless dollars.”

The CBB website explains that the CBB administers the national beef checkoff program and sets the budget. Established as part of the 1985 Farm Bill, the CBB consists of 103 members nominated by certified nominating organizations and appointed by the USDA Secretary to serve three-year terms. Members include domestic beef, dairy and veal producers, as well as importers of beef and beef products.

The CBB must contract with “established national nonprofit industry-governed organizations,” and CBB only reimburses for work actually done. Meanwhile, the Beef Promotion Operating Committee (BPOC) funds programs and contracts with organizations to do the work. The BPOC consists of 10 members elected to serve by the Beef Board, while the other 10 are selected by the states through the Federation of State Beef Councils. No program is approved unless two-thirds of the members of the Operating Committee vote to accept it.

To learn more about the checkoff, visit www.beefboard.org/about/faq_aboutbeefboard.asp.