Commentary: Oklahoma Checkoff Vote Stirs Controversy

Early voting on Oklahoma’s secondary beef checkoff program began Monday, and with it an aggressive campaign to undermine the program and influence voters by planting seeds of doubt.

Oklahoma is attempting to establish a producer-funded and managed, state-level promotion, marketing, research and education program for beef and beef products. To do so, producers are asked to vote on a state-wide assessment of $1 per head when an animal changes ownership, all of which is refundable on request. That $1 assessment would be in addition to the $1 national beef checkoff program already in place.

Checkoff programs at both the state and national level, however, routinely meet vocal resistance, primarily from two groups: The Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM), and Ranchers Cattlemen’s Action Legal Fund (R-CALF USA).

Earlier this year in a lawsuit filed by R-CALF, a U.S. District Court Judge in Montana upheld an injunction against the Montana Beef Council, which prevents the MBC from keeping a portion of the beef checkoff funds without consent from the payer. In that case, R-CALF went after a state beef council which it argued was a private entity.

R-CALF’s tactic of going after the state beef council was initiated because previous attempts to derail the national Beef Checkoff program were unsuccessful. More than a decade ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 vote that national checkoff programs were “government speech,” and therefore constitutional.

Efforts to undermine Oklahoma’s checkoff vote, however, are much different. OCM has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General, alleging that the Oklahoma Beef Council has joined the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, an agriculture industry trade organization, in campaigning and promoting a “yes” vote on Oklahoma’s secondary beef checkoff. The Oklahoma Beef Council denies the allegation.

Specifically, OCM claims the OBC is using the checkoff’s trademarked logo to promote and influence a “yes” vote. Officials involved in the logo’s design told Drovers that the logo was patterned after similar logos used during a checkoff referendum in Texas which passed in 2014.

OCM also wants producers to believe that the embezzlement of Oklahoma checkoff funds by a former OBC employee somehow means producers should not vote to fund additional money for beef promotion and research. The OBC embezzlement case and the checkoff vote, however, are unrelated and should be treated as such by producers.

The former OBC employee embezzled $2.6 million over a ten year period, despite regular third party audits. The former employee has plead guilty and is awaiting sentencing.

The embezzlement case – unfortunate as it was – is not justification for Oklahoma producers to lose faith in their state beef council. Consider, for instance, the American Banker’s Association reported fraud losses totaling $2 billion in 2014, yet American’s are not calling for banks to be closed.

Oklahoma’s checkoff referendum brings no new arguments to the table – from either side.

Passage of the referendum would mean more sorely needed money to fund beef promotion and research at a time when American consumers are overwhelmed with the clutter of misinformation about beef and all foods. Simple as that. The goals of the checkoff are the same as 30 years ago – fund product research and promote beef, only now inflation means your $1 checkoff contribution has about half the buying power it did in the late 1980s.

Arguments against the checkoff are more of the same ones made for decades, too. Primarily, OCM and R-CALF believe checkoff dollars are used for the benefit of beef packers, who they often refer to with disgust as “multi-national meat packers.” Such disdain for meat packers puts OCM and R-CALF in the unusual and awkward business situation of undermining their customers.

I recently had the privilege of attending the Certified Angus Beef annual conference in Nashville. There were a few cowboys there, but mostly the 600 attendees were chefs, grocery chain meat managers, packers, restauranteurs and other professionals involved in delivering high quality beef to American consumers. Their goal for attending was to learn more about CAB and how they could sell more. Not once did I hear a complaint about the product’s price, or packer profit margins. Those simply aren’t roadblocks.

Unlike the beef industry as a whole, however, the CAB program involves stakeholders from every link in the chain pulling in one direction. Carcasses identified as CAB earn premiums for producers, and those premiums are carried forward throughout the chain. Complaints – if there are any – involve product quality, not price or the profit somebody else in the chain is making.

Let’s hope the entire beef industry can someday benefit from such a model. Passage of the Oklahoma secondary beef checkoff referendum would be a step in that direction.

Oklahoma producers can vote by mail if those ballots are postmarked by Oct. 27. In-person voting will take place at any county Extension office in all 77 counties on Nov. 1.