USDA is moving ahead with its plans to create a separate beef checkoff. A notice likely will appear sometime in early November informing cattle producers about the initiative.
I had a phone interview with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Monday. It was set up to talk about the checkoff controversy but the world had largely already moved on to the Country-of-Origin Labeling fight. Yet, so many of the same players are involved in both arguments. Most organizations that back a COOL mandate also are demanding a major overhaul of the current beef checkoff before they would back increasing the mandated checkoff fee.
I've been editing an upcoming series on the waters of the U.S. rule. So my head was in several different places at once, leading me to ask Vilsack if he saw a "significant nexus" between the COOL fight and the checkoff.
"If there's a nexus, I think it's that the folks that have been strongly advocating for the COOL legislation and labeling have been smaller-sized producers who believe that there's a market opportunity for them by people buying local," Vilsack said. "And I think that same group has expressed concerns about the way the beef checkoff has been used and the belief about how those resources have been used in the past."
Vilsack said he is moving ahead on plans to establish a new beef checkoff under the 1996 checkoff law. He will continue to move in that direction until the beef industry's ad-hoc working group comes to Vilsack and says the industry has reached agreement on an alternative way to move ahead.
"Here's the dilemma. Everybody in the industry knows we need more money to market, more money to promote and more money to do research. There is a consensus among everyone -- all the folks in the working groups, all the producer groups -- everyone has agreed more money is necessary."
Groups have met for three years to talk about possible changes to the current beef checkoff, built on the 1985 law. The broad range of cattle, farm and ranch groups involved in the talks have been unable to come to terms. Thus, gridlock continues on changes necessary to seek an increase in the $1-per head fee.
A second checkoff would go through the process of soliciting input from producers about how it would be structured, including how much it would cost and how the program would be administered. Vilsack said such a program would operate for three years then there would be a referendum regarding whether to keep it.
Vilsack said he expects sometime in the first part of November there will be a notice in the Federal Register detailing plans to solicit comments on the checkoff, including a series of questions people would weigh in on. "It will take a little time because we want to give people time to comment. We have to go through a rule-making process and we want to go through that process."
Vilsack said he would anticipate some of the same divisions within the beef industry over a new checkoff that the industry faces with COOL.
"It's a very interesting time and challenging time for the livestock industry. You have got high prices, you have got low supply, you have got a great potential export opportunity in the future. Now is the time for us to be aggressive, but you can't be as aggressive as all would like us to be because you simply don't have the money in the checkoff and you can't get the consensus that would allow the current checkoff to be increased. So you set up a separate checkoff, see how it works, and hope that over time you develop and create the consensus."
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the main contractor of the current beef checkoff, opposes the secretary's plan for a new program. NCBA has even created a petition on the White House website, "Don't Hijack the Beef Checkoff" that seeks to get 100,000 signatures by Nov. 12. The petition has yet to break 900 signatures as of late Monday afternoon. https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/…
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