Judge Sides with Independent Beef Producers in Checkoff Case

The Montana Beef Council collects checkoff dollars and sends half the money to the Cattlemen's Beef Board

By Amy Beth Hanson, Associated Press

HELENA — A U.S. magistrate judge is siding with independent beef producers in their challenge over the way beef is marketed in Montana.

Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America — or R-CALF USA — challenged the fact that half of the $1-per-head federal tax on cattle sales collected in Montana is used by the privately incorporated Montana Beef Council.

The Montana Beef Council collects the checkoff dollars and sends half the money to the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, a national promotional group.

Public Justice attorney David Muraskin, who represented R-CALF in its complaint against the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, argued independent producers were being forced to subsidize the council’s promotions, which do not distinguish between domestic and foreign beef.

U.S. Magistrate John Johnston on Monday recommended that U.S. District Judge Brian Morris grant a preliminary injunction to prevent the Montana Beef Council from keeping checkoff money without prior consent from individual ranchers.

Since 1985, beef producers have paid the checkoff fee to promote the marketing and consumption of beef. The Montana Beef Council received more than $870,000 in beef checkoff money between October 2014 and September 2015, the R-CALF USA complaint said.

R-CALF USA argued its producers comply with the United States’ rigorous safety and quality standards, but have no standing to encourage the Montana Beef Council to market beef raised in the U.S. separately. The group includes cattle ranchers and feedlot operators in 42 states. R-CALF USA has 375 voting members in Montana.

Johnston’s recommendation protects ranchers’ First Amendment rights, Muraskin said.

“It allows them to ensure their money actually supports domestic operations rather than these multinational organizations that have taken over the beef checkoff in Montana,” he said.

Chaley Harney, the executive director of the Montana Beef Council, had not read the recommendation and declined to comment on Monday.

The USDA has 14 days to file an objection to Johnston’s recommendation.

The Department of Justice, which is representing the USDA and Vilsack, declined to comment on the ongoing litigation, spokeswoman Nicole Navas said.

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