By TIM HEARDEN
A competing cattle organization is blasting a Kansas rancher's lawsuit to block Beef Checkoff funds from going to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the checkoff's biggest contractor.
The U.S. Cattlemen's Association, which has had its own disagreements with NCBA over checkoff expenditures in recent years, said it won't support the legal challenge mounted by feedyard operator Michael Callicrate and his Organization for Competitive Markets.
Callicrate claims in his lawsuit that the NCBA is illegally using checkoff funds to influence government action and policy on behalf of industrialized agriculture rather than cattle producers.
"NCBA has essentially taken all of our own money - that we've been forced to pay in to the checkoff by law - and used it to lobby Congress for ... an industrialized cattle system that is contrary to the independent cattle producer's interest," said Callicrate, who is the Lincoln, Neb.-based OCM's vice president.
But the USCA laments that Callicrate has partnered with the Humane Society of the United States, which provided legal research and information but is not a plaintiff.
"We doubt that HSUS has any true concerns about how checkoff dollars are administered," USCA director Leo McDonnell said in a statement. "In fact, if the organization's long-term goal is to eliminate animal agriculture, then the complete demise of commodity checkoffs supports that plan."
Humane Society president and CEO Wayne Pacelle told the Capital Press the group isn't trying to dismantle the checkoff but wants to make sure its funds aren't used for lobbying. He said the NCBA has been fighting egg-industry reforms sought by HSUS.
"Talk about staying in your lane," Pacelle said. "I don't understand why the NCBA is trying to prevent the egg industry from passing legislation to protect that industry for the next generation. We're trying to have improvements for 285 million laying hens. That's an animal welfare issue, and we don't want to see checkoff dollars used for lobbying against that."
NCBA chief executive Forrest Roberts responded that the group has opposed an amendment in the 2012 Farm Bill that would codify HSUS' agreement with egg producers on cage sizes, but that the activities weren't funded by checkoff dollars.
"For the first time, it would take any animal care guidelines out of the hands of experts and put them in the hands of the federal government," Roberts said. "It's not the right approach for animal agriculture. While this amendment only pertains to egg production, there's absolutely no assurance whatsoever that this will not be used as a blueprint for the entire livestock community."
Callicrate filed his suit Aug. 9 in U.S. District Court in Kansas, naming as defendants the USDA and Secretary Tom Vilsack, the Cattlemen's Beef Promotion and Research Board, the Beef Promotion Operating Committee and the Agricultural Marketing Service. The NCBA is not a defendant.
The suit stems from a 2010 audit that found the NCBA billed as checkoff expenses consulting fees related to the organization's policy divisions and other items the beef board found questionable.
Under a 1985 law, fees from the checkoff - a $1 assessment on each head of cattle sold - must be used strictly for research and promotion but not for advocacy.
As a result of the audit, the NCBA agreed in January 2011 to repay $216,944 in checkoff funds, and the beef board began conducting a monthly check of contractors' expenditures and reviewing checkoff-related activities.
A separate audit conducted this year by USDA's Office of Inspector General found that its Agricultural Marketing Service did not always require various boards to comply with agency guidelines and failed to recognize its oversight role extended to subcontractors.
However, producer surveys have consistently given the Beef Checkoff high marks. The latest survey of 900 beef and dairy producers this summer found that two-thirds believe the checkoff is well managed and about 70 percent said it represents their interests, according to the beef board.
"I can tell you that I am confident in our audit and accounting procedures," board CEO Polly Ruhland told the Capital Press. "Not only have we been safeguarding checkoff dollars for a long time, but we've made improvements in the system over the last two years."
The NCBA receives most checkoff dollars each year. In the current fiscal year, the organization received about 75 percent of the roughly $35 million in checkoff funds based on approved authorization requests, beef board spokesman Lynn Heinze said.
For its part, the NCBA has expressed "disgust" over what it calls an effort by Callicrate and the HSUS to "destroy" the checkoff. Roberts said the organization represents beef producers of all sizes and that its financial practices make sure lobbying activities, which are paid for through members' dues, are separate from checkoff programs.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)