Blame it on chicken. Blame it on fish.
For years, beef was considered the bad boy of American cuisine.
Rising health concerns about red meat and soaring prices in the
1980s plunged the beef industry into crisis.
The problem got so bad that in 1985, Congress passed the Beef Act
- a law aimed at improving the image of steaks, burgers, and even
pot roast. The centerpiece of the effort was a generic
advertisement: "Beef: It's What's for Dinner."
The ad helped turn things around. Since 1998, beef consumption in
the US has risen 20 percent, according to one academic study. But
now questions have emerged about how Congress chose to fund the well-
known beef advertisements.
An industry organization, the Livestock Marketing Association,
and a group of ranchers are challenging the constitutionality of the
Beef Act - saying it forces some beef producers to pay for
advertising that they do not support.
Wednesday, their "beef" arrives at the US Supreme Court where the
justices must decide whether the generic advertising violates First
Amendment protections against coerced speech and coerced
association. If the Beef Act is struck down, analysts say, similar
challenges by disaffected milk and pork producers could imperil the
"Got Milk?" and "The Other White Meat" campaigns.
Under 15 such promotional programs, industry members are required
by law to pay an assessment to fund generic advertising and other
government-backed efforts aimed at benefiting an entire industry.
The Beef Act requires payment of $1 for each head of cattle sold.
Some ranchers oppose the ads because they do not distinguish
between higher-quality grain-fed US beef and grass-fed beef from
abroad. They say American ranchers should not be forced to pay for
ads that help foreign competitors, even though importers also pay
the $1-per-head fee.
On the other side of the case are outgoing Agriculture Secretary
Ann Veneman and ranchers and beef industry groups that support the
Beef Act. They argue that the ads are a form of government speech,
immune from First Amendment challenge.
"The First Amendment does not give citizens - including beef
producers - the right to avoid federal assessments simply because
they disagree with the way in which those assessments are spent,"
says Gregory Garre, a Washington, D.C., lawyer in his brief on
behalf of Nebraska Cattlemen Inc.
Laurence Tribe, a Harvard Law professor representing Beef Act
challengers, says government involvement in the promotional effort
does not reduce the unconstitutionally coercive aspects of the
"Compulsion to support a government message is the very essence
of what the First Amendment forbids," he writes in his brief to the