The national beef checkoff program has been ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge.

On June 21, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Kornmann ruled that the checkoff violates producers' rights in the First Amendment, and then he ordered a halt to checkoff collections starting July 15.

The Livestock Marketing Association, the Western Organization of Resource Councils and several individual producers raised the challenge of the checkoff's constitutionality in a case against the USDA, the Cattlemen's Beef Promotion and Research Board and Nebraska Cattlemen Inc.

U.S. Secretary Ann Veneman says she is disappointed by the court's ruling and is consulting with the Department of Justice to determine the next steps.

Meanwhile, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) is confident the case will be overturned on appeal and the judge's ruling stayed so that the checkoff can continue while the case advances to the next court level, says NCBA president Wythe Willey.

"We believe this ruling is only a temporary setback for American beef producers," he says.

USDA and the Justice Department have promised to vigorously defend the beef checkoff, Willey says.

"Fortunately, the beef industry has an extremely strong case, and we believe we will prevail in higher court. The checkoff has been and will continue to be an effective way for producers to invest in their future," he says.

Launched in 1986, the checkoff program requires beef producers to pay a $1/head fee on cattle sold in the U.S. and raises more than $80 million a year. Half of that goes to the Cattlemen's Beef Promotion and Research Board and the other half to qualified state beef councils.

An independent survey released in January indicates that 68% of beef producers approve of the checkoff program, according to NCBA.

To read the court proceedings online, click here.