Cattlemen Seek Changes To 20-Year-Old Beef Checkoff Program

Monday, December 24th 2007, 7:39 am
By: News On 6

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) _ Cattle producers in Nebraska and other states are pushing for the first significant change to the national beef checkoff program since it started more than 20 years ago.

The beef checkoff program is behind the popular ``Beef, It's What's for Dinner'' ads that feature the distinctive voice of actor Sam Elliott. At a dollar a head, the checkoff fee pools about $80 million annually for beef promotion, research and education, among other things.

But more than two decades of inflation have decreased the buying power of that dollar, say checkoff supporters.

Some state chapters of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association want Congress to hike the checkoff to $2, while others want producers who pay the checkoff to vote on whether it should rise. The program remains much the same since Congress authorized the U.S. Department of Agriculture to start it in the mid-1980s, according to association representative Don Ricketts.

The Colorado-based group administers many of the beef checkoff dollars.

``There are so many more issues today, and the dollar doesn't go as far as it used to,'' Ricketts said.

Ricketts said that under one proposal, future hikes in the checkoff would require only a vote of those who pay the checkoff and not approval from Congress.

The association plans to meet in February to vote on proposals and then lobby Congress to approve the changes.

Competition for grocery buyers' dollars has stiffened because there are more non-beef products at the stores, said Michael Kelsey of the Nebraska Cattlemen, which is affiliated with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

That requires more money to develop new beef products and advertise them, he said. He also said consumers are looking for more assurances that what they eat is safe.

Under the changes backed by the Nebraska Cattlemen, the U.S. Department of Agriculture would help petition for two votes by people who pay the checkoff.

One vote would be on whether to increase the checkoff and would be held if the USDA and others were able to gather enough petition signatures. Producers have no vote now.

The Nebraska group also wants to make it easier to hold a national producers' referendum on whether to keep the checkoff program at all. Under the new proposal, producers would have the opportunity to regularly vote _ maybe every five years or so _ on whether to keep the checkoff program.

Referendums are possible now, but are not conducted because of what Kelsey said is a vague, difficult process in which producers can organize petition drives but without help from the USDA.

A national task force composed of members from different cattle groups made that recommendation, along with a recommendation to increase the checkoff, more than a year ago. But the National Cattlemen's Beef Association decided to wait and hear from groups like the Nebraska Cattlemen before taking action.

Some Montana ranchers challenged the constitutionality of the checkoff program several years ago. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government can force producers to pay the fee, and new efforts to change the checkoff began.

Some ranchers also want checkoff dollars to be used to promote U.S. beef. Currently no country can be specified in promotions.

About 10 percent of the $80 million checkoff fund comes from foreign producers who export beef to the U.S.