The Canadian border issue isn't the only beef industry hot potato that might see some resolution this month. The fate of the national beef checkoff, which is currently being mulled by members of the U.S. Supreme Court, is also likely to be learned by month's end.

The Court heard arguments last Dec. 8 on the appeal of a lower court decision in South Dakota that declared the checkoff unconstitutional under First Amendment rights to free speech and association. What the ultimate disposition will be depends on whom you talk to. Both sides seem cautiously confident of victory.

But, if the decision does come down against the checkoff, how mournfully ironic that such a result would come on the heels of the latest survey of producer attitudes which found producer approval of the beef checkoff at a 10-year high.

The latest semiannual survey conducted for the Cattlemen's Beef Board (CBB) by Aspen Media and Market Research, Boulder, CO, found 73% in support of the checkoff among beef producers polled between Dec. 19, 2004, and Jan. 8, 2005.

That represents a level of support 3% greater than a similar survey conducted in July, and is unmatched since the early 1990s when approval levels were in the low 80% range.

Couple that with the news from Cattle-Fax last month that beef demand has grown by more than 25% since 1998. Owing to that was a 7.74% increase in consumer demand for beef in 2004 alone.

According to Cattle-Fax, the demand increase equates to an additional $22/cwt. in the price of fed cattle. That means fed cattle that averaged $84.50/cwt. in 2004 would have sold for $62.50/cwt. at 1998 demand levels. In addition, annual U.S. consumer expenditures on beef have increased by $24 billion/year compared to the spending levels in the mid 1990s.

It's sad then that the fate of one of the most successful self-help marketing programs rests in the hands of nine black-robed jurists completely outside the industry.

In his “Market Advisor” column in the October 2004 issue of BEEF magazine, Harlan Hughes alludes to how cattle price cycles typically run 10-12 years but producer memories only go back about seven years. It would seem a little of that phenomenon is at play in the checkoff battle, as well.

As the Cattle-Fax data illustrate, it wasn't long ago that beef demand was in the middle of a 20-year swoon. Attacked on all sides by popular media and culture, and anti-meat and animal activist groups, the common cry rising from industry meeting rooms was: “Why doesn't someone in the industry do something?”

Well, the industry did. Passage of the Beef Promotion and Research Act in 1985 bankrolled research that provided the scientific underpinning for correcting myths, developing new products, and selling the convenience, safety and importance of beef in the diet.

How sad then for a program so stellar in its design and performance that its fate now rests in the hands of just nine Americans after being put there by a handful of folks who represent less than 10% of all stakeholders. After all, the anti-checkoff crowd, in a 12-month period, could not deliver the valid signatures of 10% of producers required to call for a referendum, as provided by the Act and Order.

What a shame.