A federal judge dealt a major blow to the national beef checkoff when he ruled the program was unconstitutional. In the ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Kornmann said the checkoff violates the First Amendment and ordered a halt to all checkoff collections beginning July 15.

Under the current program, all beef producers pay a fee of $1 per head for cattle sold in the U.S., which accounts for more than $80 million per year for beef promotion and research. The challenge to the checkoff was raised by the Livestock Marketing Association, Western Organization of Resource councils and several individual beef producers. Defendants in the case include: the USDA, the Cattlmen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board and the Nebraska Cattlemen.

The South Dakota judge ruled that beef producers shouldn’t have to pay for advertisements with which they disagree. He also said that producers were paying for ads that benefited others that sell beef, such as restaurants and retail stores. Another reason the plaintiffs cited for their challenge was that the checkoff promotes all beef, not just U.S. beef.

Reactions to the ruling were mixed. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association believes the ruling is only a temporary setback for U.S. beef producers. Wythe Willey, producer president of NCBA, says the group 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 through the court system.

“This ruling reverses the will of Congress,” says J.D. Alexander, immediate-past president of Nebraska cattlemen. “It’s an attempt to stop an industry and takes away the empowerment of nearly a million beef producers.”

Checkoff opponents contend it does the opposite. “The decision affirms a producer’s right to free speech, and the right to promote his own product,” says Billy Perrin, president of the Livestock Marketing Association. “It’s now up to the industry to come together to discuss a voluntary program which we can all support.”

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman expressed disappointment at the ruling. She says USDA is consulting with the U.S. Department of Justice to determine the next step. Most likely, the decision will be appealed.

NCBA, LMA, Associated Press