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2 rulings allow lawsuits challenging beef checkoffs, meatpackers to go on

The Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, or R-CALF, has a hand in both lawsuits, one challenging the Beef Checkoff program and the other alleging that JBS, Tyson, National Beef, and Cargill conspired to suppress the price of cattle and increase the price of beef. That latter ruling came out of a federal court in Minnesota.

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Two lawsuits involving R-CALF USA have moved forward in recent weeks. Photo taken Aug. 31, 2021, Devils Lake, North Dakota. Mikkel Pates / Agweek
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Two court cases challenging the status quo in the U.S. beef industry will be allowed to proceed after recent ruling from federal judges.

The Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers of America, or R-CALF USA, has a hand in both lawsuits, one challenging the Beef Checkoff program and the other questioning market control by the nation's four largest meatpackers.

In the challenge to the Beef Checkoff program, a U.S. District Court judge in the District of Columbia on Sept. 29 denied a claim by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, writing that the ranchers have successfully alleged they have “associational standing” to challenge USDA’s practices. However, the ruling said "it does not resolve the factual question whether R-CALF actually has standing to make its challenge." Further proceedings will address that question.

"The case will proceed to discovery, through which the public may be able to glean more details about Big Ag’s influence on the Beef Checkoff," R-CALF said in a news release on its website.

R-CALF alleges that the USDA unlawfully amended the Beef Checkoff Program by entering into certain agreements (known as “Memoranda of Understanding” or “MOUs”) with the Qualified State Beef Councils that help administer the program rather than engaging in notice-and-comment rulemaking.

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The ruling "recognizes that independent ranchers have a right through the courts to challenge a system that uses their money to prop up multinational agribusiness,” said David Muraskin, litigation director of the Public Justice Food Project and counsel for R-CALF USA said in the news release. “USDA entered into these MOU’s illegally by skipping a true public input process, which is essential to good governing."

In the other case involving R-CALF, a federal judge for the District of Minnesota on Sept. 13 issued an order substantially denying the motion by the nation’s four largest beef packers to dismiss the class-action antitrust lawsuit originally filed in April 2019 by R-CALF USA.

The National Farmers Union is among the plaintiffs alleging that JBS, Tyson, National Beef, and Cargill conspired to suppress the price of cattle and increase the price of beef.

“We are pleased the effort to restore pricing transparency and competitiveness to the cattle markets is moving forward in the courtroom. This case is nearly two-and-a-half years old, and we look forward to the next step in the litigation,” said Rob Larew, president of the National Farmers Union in a Sept. 29 news release.

The case now enters the discovery phase of the trial, where evidence and information will be presented to demonstrate how packers violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, the Packers and Stockyards Act, and the Commodity Exchange Act.

“This judge gets it,” South Dakota Farmers Union President, Doug Sombke said in a Oct. 4 statement in response to the ruling by Judge John Tunheim. “My entire farming career, we have been fighting for fair prices. Every time we would try to prove price fixing, the previous judges always found a reason to protect the meat processing industry. So, they continued to get richer while family farmers and ranchers continue to lose profits.”

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