WASHINGTON, Sept. 8, 2014 – Noting that three years of negotiations had produced very little in way of reforming the beef checkoff, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he might just handle it on his own.

Speaking to members of the National Farmers Union today at their legislative fly-in in Washington, Vilsack expressed disappointment at the lack of progress on changing the beef checkoff system. He said it was “unfortunate” that the groups involved in the talks couldn’t reach a consensus, but hinted USDA might tackle the problem unilaterally.

“Folks may or may not like what we figure out, and if they don’t . . . they can go back in the room and figure it out themselves, but they haven’t done that,” Vilsack said. He jokingly compared such a step to his parenting tactic of making both his sons mad at him so they would at least be united in something.

The NFU board this weekend announced that its representatives were pulling out of the working group negotiating checkoff reform, citing the same lack of progress Vilsack described. A number of stakeholder groups have been meeting for the last three years with reform options on the table, including changes to checkoff governance and a potential increase from the $1 per head of beef cattle sold that has been in place since the 1980s. The money is used to promote U.S. beef domestically and overseas and for research.

 “It was going nowhere,” NFU President Roger Johnson told a small group of reporters this morning. “We’ve done three years of meetings, and we’re going in circles. It just went on and on and on and everyone got really frustrated, but nobody wanted to be the first to leave.”

Johnson said that the NFU’s exit from the working group should serve as a message to others in the negotiations.

“It was intended to send a signal that we’re not happy, we don’t think it’s going to end up going anywhere,” Johnson said. “If we were serious about doing something, one would think people would have said, ‘Well, let’s get back together and talk about things.’”

When asked if he received any response from groups involved, Johnson said “from the ones that matter, no,” alluding to a lack of response from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. NCBA has been a major player in checkoff negotiations and is the largest contractor of the beef checkoff, receiving about $179.1 million of the just over $182 million in checkoff funding allocated to contractors between FY 2009 and 2013.

In a statement released to Agri-Pulse, NCBA President Bob McCan said the organization remains committed to making the program “as efficient, effective and accountable to producers as it can be.” Frustration with the process is a common theme amongst members of the working group, and – like NFU – some are beginning to wonder if progress is still possible.

“The Secretary isn’t alone in his disappointment about the lack of progress in changing the beef check-off,” said Mary Kay Thatcher, senior director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation.  “It’s been a long slog and we’re skeptical this group of 10 associations can ever sing ‘Kumbaya’ without some kind of intervention.”

Questions remain about the authority USDA would have over a program like the checkoff, which was designed and approved by Congress, but that didn’t seem to faze Vilsack.

“We’re all about executive action,” Vilsack told reporters after his remarks. 

Vilsack said his ultimate goal is to foster a healthy beef industry, but after three years of talks, he is willing to go it alone, and “if (working group members) don’t like it, tough.”

In addition to NCBA, the working group includes representatives from the American Farm Bureau Federation, U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, the Meat Importers Council of America, the National Livestock Producers Association, the Livestock Marketing Association, the National Milk Producers Federation, the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, the State Federation of Beef Councils and the American National Cattle Women.


Updated at 4:19 p.m. to include comments from NCBA and AFBF 

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