The beef cattle industry press has expended a considerable amount of space lately to the pros and cons of the beef checkoff program. As prices for fed beef, feeder calves, stockers, wheat, corn, barley, etc. decline, there seems to be an inclination to place part of the blame on the national checkoff assessment. The program is deemed to have failed because producers' prices have fallen.

Hindsight is always better than looking into the future. Today, we would likely do a better job of structuring the checkoff program than what was done 10 years ago. Not that those who drafted the concepts did a bad job - it's just easier to do better with all those years of experience to fall back upon.

Petitions calling for a producer referendum are being circulated. Critics are calling for a "no" vote as the way to address alleged problem areas in the checkoff program or the administration of those programs.

The industry has its hands full with low prices, lawsuits, trade issues, packer concentration, captive supplies, price discovery, environmental concerns, bad publicity over diet and health issues and declining consumer demand. Yet some believe the industry needs yet another controversy to help define or describe our present day predicaments.

Can It Be Fixed? Can the beef checkoff program be improved? Most knowledgeable producers think so. Is it all bad and therefore deserving of being abolished? Most reasonable minds would not concur with that action. So the real solution - as usually is the case - lies somewhere in between.

As a suggestion, perhaps the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture should appoint a blue ribbon task force to review and report on viable options regarding the future role of the beef checkoff. This group could investigate the current allegations, hold hearings and invite the opponents and proponents to appear, compare the beef program with other national commodity checkoffs and make recommendations to the Secretary based upon their findings.

Some of the issues that could be examined include:

* Is the current $1 per head the proper amount to be assessed?

* Should the state share remain at 50 cents, or should it be set at 50% irrespective of the amount of the assessment?

* Are all industry organizations treated fairly under the provision that excludes those not active at the time the Act was written as being eligible contractors?

* Is the representation on the powerful Operating Committee the proper mix?

* Should self-evaluation be the best way to serve the checkoff interests or is there a better way to measure progress and success?

* Are there unclear and ambiguous sections of the Act and Order that need to be reviewed and improved upon?

Undoubtedly, this list could be expanded as the task force work proceeded. Who would pay for this effort? The $5-million reserve fund held by the Cattlemen's Beef Board would be a possible place to start.

The Real Culprit The real culprit in most of the industry ills is loss of market share or competition from other protein sources. The problems the beef industry faces have been well documented and boil down to two things - the quality of our product and the consistency of favorable eating experiences. These can be expanded into convenience, ease of preparation, packaging, plus all the production issues the industry wrestles with.

These are not good times in rural America. While much of the U.S. has prospered in recent times, agriculture is suffering serious economic stress. A challenge regarding the beef checkoff makes for a good diversion, but doesn't address the real and fundamental problems. We owe it to ourselves to proceed, but with caution. Let's not be guilty of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.