Both Arabian and Chinese proverbs are credited with the philosophy that, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."
But just how low will someone - or group - stoop to find a friend?
That question was answered today when the Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM) announced that platoons of lawyers at the anti-livestock, vegetarian advocate group Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) had helped OCM evaluate and plan a lawsuit the group will file Friday. The suit will name as defendants USDA, the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, the Cattlemen's Beef Board (CBB) and the Beef Operating Committee, according to Fred Stokes, OCM president. The suit will seek an injunction to stop the CBB from contracting with NCBA to carry out check off programs. OCM will allege USDA failed in its oversight role over the cattlemen-financed and directed program. The suit will allege NCBA "abuses" of check off funds, although Stokes said that direction "might be broadened later."
The promotion arm of NCBA - the former Beef Industry Council of the Meat Board (BIC)- began specific beef promotion, research and education work for the old voluntary red meat check off in 1963. After the passage by cattlemen voting in a referendum in the mid-'80s, the BIC was made a part of the new National Cattlemen's Beef Association, by merging with the National Cattlemen's Association.
Originally slated for filing Thursday, Stokes said the group plans to file Friday, Aug. 10, 2012. Exact details of the suit, the brief or comments from attorneys involved were not available at Thursday's news conference because the suit had not been filed.
Stokes said his group had filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request awhile back. They had turned the resulting information over to the legal team at HSUS. In March of 2012, at a meeting in Omaha, HSUS and a cadre of advising attorneys persuaded OCM that a lawsuit based on the FOIA information and a previous audit of NCBA contracts with CBB could be pursued. OCM then persuaded a law firm - Polsenelli Shugart, with offices in 16 cities from New York and Washington to Los Angles -- to handle the case on a pro bono basis.
Stokes did not mention the irony of a 252-lawyer division (Kansas City) of a 600-attorney law firm handling a case for a very small group of self-described small family farmers and ranchers against all the rest of the nation's cattlemen, most of whom are also family farmers, ranchers and feeders.
Stokes also mentioned that he expects the USDA's Inspector General to issue a report next month over a year in the making. He expected it to be "watered down," but was hopeful that something from that report added to the group's FOIA information might lead to a "recall of the check off." Stokes also alluded to other lawsuits OCM is contemplating, including another antitrust suit.
Besides OCM's perennial opposition to NCBA, the move that seems to really have stuck in the group's craw was the CBB's participation in the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. That group is involved in educating and interacting with consumers about how food is produced. But besides nearly 60 farm, ranch and commodity groups involved, the group includes major allied industry companies interested in promoting beef demand and that is anathema to OCM. Stokes particularly bristled at perennial target Monsanto, also mentioning BASF. Leveraging livestock producer dollars with corporate money is evidently not something OCM countenances.
Stokes talked about the evolution of this radical move, tracing the start of this strategy from dashed, "high hopes for this [Obama] administration." In meetings early on with administration people, Stokes said the feeling was that "these people understood our problems, felt our pain and help was on the way." They felt J. Dudley Butler's efforts at reinvigorating the Packers and Stockyards Act would bear fruit. Stokes claimed "millions of dollars were spent" opposing Butler's proposed Rule - "some of it forcefully taken from us through commodity programs." Stokes referred to "sometimes vulgar opponents" in Congress opposing the implementation of the Rule, as well as other disappointments to the group, including the proposed 2012 Farm Bill with no livestock title included and the WTO's striking down of the mCOOL law advocated by OCM and allies.
At that point, having lost decisively on several fronts to mainstream livestock producers, OCM apparently felt the only viable option they had was to take the advice of one of the livestock industry's foremost adversaries in HSUS and prevail upon a large law firm to help them sue all the rest of the nation's cattlemen. The large majority of cattlemen - as documented by third-party surveys - have credited the beef check off with a large share of the recovered consumer beef demand resulting in the all-time record beef prices in recent years.
Stokes noted that cow numbers are the lowest since the 1950s but didn't mention that cattlemen -- utilizing genetics, nutrition and superior management - have learned how to produce record amounts of beef from those cow numbers. Drought, high input costs and an uncertain economic outlook have stymied any significant cowherd expansion that could have been expected.
Asked if the injunction if granted would stop the collection of the check off, Stokes said he didn't know - "I had not thought about that." Evidently, more important than any far reaching effects is getting at NCBA, even though that means jeopardizing the entire beef industry's promotion, education and research program. Stokes referred to paying the check off as "funding our own misery," although he didn't connect the dots between promoting beef eating, nutrition education and health and medical research and his "misery." He did complain about the drop in cow numbers, lower per capita beef consumption and smaller farmer retail share of the market, as if somehow the check off was responsible for trends rooted in major, complex economic and lifestyle trends driven by consumers around the world. It is just those trends the check off -- along with other efforts -- is trying to help cattlemen deal with.
Perhaps the most shocking statement for livestock producers was this Stokes' statement:
"I personally, and OCM, and every cowboy in America owe a debt of gratitude to HSUS. This is historic. We are not going to have this opportunity again."
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Steve Dittmer, Agribusiness Freedom Foundation.