My personal observations lead me to believe that knives are rapidly becoming the least-used kitchen utensil. In my house we no longer cut carrots, mushrooms or lettuce. They all come from the store sliced, diced, peeled and, well... ready to eat.

"Convenience is no longer a fad. It's a way of life," says Susan Lambert, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association's director of market research.

A recent NCBA survey found 37 percent of meals involved a bagged salad or a bagged vegetable. Items such as boxed meal helpers, jarred sauces, food mixes and frozen entrees are also greatly used. NCBA also notes that the center-of-the-plate segment in the heat-'n-serve category grew by 83 percent, or $283 million, during the past two years. Beef's use in such products has increased by 45 percent in the last year, compared with 33 percent by pork.

Increasing demand for beef over the past two years, and the steady stream of new beef convenience products are no accident. They are directly related to the warning shots fired from the 1991 National Beef Quality Audit, and from consumer research suggesting steaks and hamburgers were about the only products our industry offered that anybody wanted. And at least a quarter of the steaks were either too big, too fat or too tough.

But we're past all that, right? Beef's back in style, and the overall quality of our product has improved significantly. Yep, we're on a roll. At least I thought so until the U.S. Supreme Court shot down the mushroom checkoff last month. The high court ruled that a mandatory mushroom promotional campaign violates free-speech rights under the First Amendment.

Tennessee-based United Foods has refused to pay for the generic mushroom industry ads since 1996. The company contends that paying the promotional fee helps support its competitors. Writing the opinion for the 6-3 majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy upheld a U.S. appeals court decision which drew a distinction between mushrooms and California tree fruit, a program the high court upheld.

NCBA and the National Pork Producers Council are understandably concerned, though they note that the mushroom and beef and pork checkoff programs are considerably different. The mushroom assessment fees are used primarily for promotion, whereas the beef and pork checkoffs focus on research, education and promotion.

U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary Ann Veneman says the ruling might not impact other commodity promotion programs.

"The way this (the mushroom case) is distinguished, as I understand it, is that this is a promotion and research order only, as opposed to a full-blown marketing order," Secretary Veneman said. She added that the Supreme Court was making a distinction between the two kinds of programs, labeling the promotion and research order a violation of free speech because producers were required to pay for certain advertising.

Such an interpretation would leave checkoff funded research and education programs intact.

Possibly more damaging than the actual ruling is the fodder for misinterpretation it provides anti-checkoff spokesmen. In the coming months you'll hear plenty of rhetoric from the "kill-the-checkoff" camp. But we need to remember that the beef checkoff has already withstood court challenges, and that it's distinctly different from the mushroom checkoff.

We should also remember that beef's revival is largely due to the programs funded by your checkoff. Without the checkoff there probably wouldn't be a heat-'n-eat-pot-roast-with-grandma's-brown-gravy-ready-in-four-minutes. If there was, it would probably belong to Don Tyson and Bob Peterson.