Anyone who’s followed the efforts of the national beef checkoff understands what a tremendous benefit it’s been to the industry. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) response to BSE and the muscle-profiling study are two examples of successes that returned the industry millions of dollars. Plus, there’s the advertising, marketing, educational and co-promotional programs have helped turn around the nutrition discussion.

Perhaps our greatest return, however, has been on the research, food safety and issues-management side of the equation. Yet again, our state beef council efforts might be the best story in helping to build beef demand. In fact, the return-on-investment studies indicate that the only negative thing about our investment in the checkoff is that inflation has eaten away at its effectiveness, leaving us hugely underfunded.

The merger that created an organization with the tools to build beef demand was a terrific idea, and the results have been significant. Unfortunately, recent events with the politicizing of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board also have made it abundantly clear that the system is broken.

The one thing we’ve learned is that while NCBA is the only organization with the capabilities to perform most of these functions, it is counterproductive to see the checkoff being used as a political football. Secondly, we’ve learned that the checkoff is not a producer program, it’s a USDA program. The implications of that are becoming more and more obvious and severely limit the program’s effectiveness.

Not only does every word uttered by checkoff personnel have to be first vetted by USDA, but USDA has put so many restrictions on the program that it’s questionable if it could be called promotion/marketing. Despite the political posturing, the firewall between policy and promotion dollars has been maintained extremely well.

Yet, the reality is that when many of the issues affecting beef demand are political in nature or involve issue management, the separation is almost impossible to maintain. Animal welfare, environmental concerns, food safety and even nutrition have political ramifications and drivers.

The system is broken and the industry can’t rely on a government-controlled program to help us build beef demand and effectively deal with the issues that have the potential to negatively impact demand. Our industry structure has become outdated and needs fixing.

Certainly, the freeloader principle made a mandatory government-administered program attractive. At this point, if we as an industry aren’t willing to invest in beef demand ourselves, we have significant issues. It’s probably time to realize that those paying the dues need to have more of a say in the program. Whether that means a voluntary checkoff program, or simply modifications to the program, the current structure is appearing to be inadequate for building beef demand into the future.
-- Troy Marshall