Bel Plain, Kansas – For 35 years, cattle producers have been funding one of the nation’s most iconic marketing activities, but now many people want to end their plans to create “beef.” This is the slogan of what to eat for dinner.
What is the rancher’s beef? Just as imports flooded the market and plant-based “fake meat” products proliferated in grocery stores, their mandatory per-ox charge did not specifically promote American beef.
“U.S. consumers were deceived at the meat counter, and our checkout fund did nothing to help clarify or answer questions about where the sirloin was born, raised, and harvested,” Nebraska Cattle Farmer and Field Director Card Linna Jones said. R-CALF American Trading Group, which is seeking to end inspections.
Opponents of the beef inspection program established by federal law in 1986 are urging cattle farmers to sign a petition calling for a referendum on ending the program.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack approved last month to extend the deadline to October 3 so that they can collect the signatures they need.
Supporters of the petition believe that beef inspections are government-authorized assessments to fund government speeches. The beef inspection fund stipulated by the law cannot be used to advertise other meats such as pork or chicken, nor can it be used for lobbying. But they complained that despite this, most of the funds supported lobbying groups that opposed mandatory country-of-origin labeling, such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
They also pointed out that the U.S. cattle industry today is completely different from when the inspection program was implemented, with more beef imported and a higher concentration of meat processors.
“Now we are paying advertising fees for the four major meat processing plants, which are able to import beef and purchase it from cheaper countries and deceive our consumers,” Jones said.
The petition created a division between supporters and non-supporters of animal husbandry.
But consumers also have a stake in this fight.
Harry Kaiser, director of the Cornell University Commodity Promotion Research Project, said one way to look at this is that consumers may not like the checkout plan because it raises the price of beef, so some consumer groups oppose it. He said another way to look at it is to inspect and fund beef safety research and the development of new beef products.
“Consumers pay a few cents more, but it is a safer product and a better quality product,” Caesars said.
Caesars, who conducted research on product advertising and promotion plans for the US Department of Agriculture, wrote in an economic analysis that if there were no Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and research committees. In 2019, the board’s budget was 40.5 million U.S. dollars for activities aimed at increasing beef demand.
Kaiser also pointed out in a telephone interview that a marketing study funded by checkoff found that one reason consumers are reluctant to buy beef is that they feel that it takes too long to prepare after returning home from get off work. This has led to the development of beef products that are easier to prepare. Consumers can buy these products in supermarkets and cook them in a microwave oven.
But cattle producers say that 20 years have passed since the innovation of charging beef, such as flat iron steak, which is a high-value cut from the low-value area of the carcass that had just been made into chuck roasts.
Since 1966, Congress has authorized industry-funded research and promotion committees to help agricultural producers concentrate resources and develop new markets. According to its website, the Agricultural Marketing Service of the USDA now monitors 22 such commodity items.
The compulsory nature of various commodity write-off plans has been controversial and has triggered thousands of lawsuits over the years. Caesar said that three cases entered the U.S. Supreme Court with mixed results.
In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the fruit farmer’s case that product advertising was constitutional because it was part of a broader regulatory program. But four years later, the Supreme Court ruled that the mushroom advertising program authorized by the federal government was not part of a larger regulatory program and was therefore unconstitutional as forced private speech. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that the beef inspection plan was constitutional on the grounds of government remarks.
Although these plans are now constitutional as part of a broader regulatory plan, Kaiser said the conservative Supreme Court can overturn these precedents, similar to requiring workers to join a union.
This is not the first time critics of the beef inspection program have tried to get enough signatures on the petition. In 1999, the Agricultural Marketing Bureau received a petition from a cattle producer and determined that the number of signatures did not meet the requirements.
The petition signatures of 10% of the country’s cattle producers—in this case, 88,269 valid signatures—are required to submit the question to the Minister of Agriculture. Any cattle producer who has owned, sold or purchased cattle between July 2, 2020 and July 1, 2021 is eligible to sign the petition. Then, Vilsack will decide whether to hold a referendum on ending the plan.
Jones said that so far, opponents have collected about 30,000 signatures.
Kansas Rancher Steve Stratford, one of the people who initiated the petition, said that meat processors-they don’t pay the checkout plan-are the ones whose profit margins increase during the checkout period.
“To make a long story short: the people who pay the dollar are not the ones who benefit from better demand and higher beef prices,” Stratford said.
But Greg Hanes, the chief executive of the beef committee responsible for the inspection program, said that when it was established, there was a “serious decision” not to let packers participate, so it was driven by producers. He pointed out that market dynamics are always changing, sometimes packagers do better than manufacturers, and sometimes manufacturers do better than packagers.
Hanes defended the inspection, saying that it is particularly important for nutritional research and that without the plan, consumers would not be able to obtain information about the benefits of beef.