High court finds one checkoff illegal

WASHINGTON – The USDA is taking a long look at its research, marketing and promotion checkoff programs in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last week.

The high court ruled June 25 that the mushroom checkoff is unconstitutional, saying it violates free-speech rights under the First Amendment.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said the department has already started a review of the mushroom program and other national commodity programs.

The 6-3 decision was a victory for the United Foods Inc., a company that has refused since 1996 to contribute assessments to help finance generic promotional ads for the mushroom industry.

Some programs legitimate.

However, the decision made a distinction that the mushroom industry mostly is unregulated as opposed to an earlier decision on a similar order for the stone fruit industry that upheld the order, partly because the stone fruit industry is more regulated.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the generic advertising program for California tree fruits did not violate the First Amendment.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Anthony Kennedy, John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and David Souter voted against the order, while Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Steven Breyer dissented.

What about others?

The court’s decision is fueling checkoff opponents’ efforts to end all assessments, or “taxation without representation,” as the Ohio Farmers Union calls the checkoff programs.

The Livestock Marketing Association, which opposes the beef checkoff, is still evaluating the decision’s implications for the beef checkoff. As long as the beef checkoff remains in place, the officials said, the association will keep pressing for the producer referendum, for which some 146,000 signatures were gathered.

In the other corner, Dan Hammond, chairman of the Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board, said his board was analyzing the decision, but he noted the mushroom program “is as different from the beef checkoff as the mushroom industry is from the beef industry.”

The mushroom assessment is paid by handlers, he said, and in the mushroom case, one handler preferred to advertise its own product, rather than advertise generic products.

“In the case of the beef checkoff, the assessment is paid by producers, each of whom benefits from an increase in beef demand,” Hammond said.

USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service oversees 14 industry self-help programs, including dairy, beef, pork, eggs and cotton.

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