It may be of little eventual consequence to the beef industry what the Supreme Court decides to do with the mandatory beef checkoff, says a key player in checkoff programs through the years.

With 73% of beef producers supporting the checkoff in a recent poll, “the question isn't whether there will be a checkoff, but what form the checkoff will take,” says John Huston, who served as National Live Stock and Meat Board president for 16 years prior to its merger with the National Cattlemen's Association in 1996.

Huston says the only real question, should the current program be found unconstitutional, is how long will it take the industry to make necessary adjustments and get the research, promotion and information programs going again?

“I don't think a voluntary program would be devastating to the industry,” Huston says. “I think it would be more devastating for the industry to have no checkoff at all.” He notes there was a voluntary program from 1922 until the mandatory program was implemented in 1986.

Huston, who was executive vice president of marketing for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) before retiring in 2000, says beef producers have made strides in many areas as a result of the mandatory checkoff. He points to recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data showing the industry is five years ahead of schedule in reducing incidence of E. coli O157:H7. Producers have invested more than $20 million in checkoff funds in dealing with the potentially deadly pathogen.

In addition, Huston says, checkoff-funded new-product development efforts helped create a need for such products, and helped get them in the market more quickly. It's also repositioned beef as a nutritious product, highlighting for dietitians and consumers the significant nutrients beef provides to the diet.

“Whatever happens, the industry needs to forget what's behind us and focus on the positives, not the negatives,” Huston says. “Those are the things that can bring the industry back together.”

Healing needed

And bringing the industry back together will be important. “Like any dispute, there does have to be a healing period,” he says.

Should the checkoff be found constitutional, it will be important for those charged with managing it to reach out to producers who feel disenfranchised, welcome their participation and seek their support. “The checkoff should be a program to unite the industry, not divide it,” Huston says.

It will also be even more important to put policy issues outside the checkoff debate.

“The checkoff has been confused in that mix,” Huston says. Programs meant to build demand have been perceived as mingled with policy programs that have no checkoff involvement. “When we start mixing those, that's when we get into trouble,” he says.

Eventually, producers directing a checkoff program will need to determine if additional steps — such as a refund provision or periodic continuance votes — will need to be added to further bring current detractors into the fold.

Ultimately, Huston thinks a refund provision would be less costly than a divided industry. He says requests for a refund during the 18-month period after introduction of the current program and prior to the referendum in 1988 were running less than 10%.

Furthermore, twice yearly surveys show producer support for the beef checkoff hasn't dropped below 60% since the program began.

A ruling that finds the checkoff unconstitutional will, Huston says, merely mean an interruption in keeping wanted programs going.

“There is high awareness of the resources the checkoff provides the industry,” he says. “Regardless of what the Supreme Court decides, there will still be a checkoff.”

Walt Barnhart is president of Carnivore Communications LLC, Denver, CO, and a former communications director of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.