updated 12/8/2004 7:00:33 PM ET 2004-12-09T00:00:33

A food fight broke out Wednesday at the Supreme Court, with justices considering whether the government could force farmers to pay for advertisement campaigns with catchy phrases like “Beef: It’s what’s for dinner” and billboards featuring milk mustaches on celebrities.

Farmers are challenging the multimillion-dollar beef promotion program, saying they should not have to pay for ads they disagree with.

The eventual ruling could jeopardize more than 100 federal and state campaigns for other products, including eggs, mangoes, popcorn and even alligators.

The programs are billed as a way to help farm operations of all sizes with generic ads, but they have fared poorly in courts. Lower courts have already struck down the “Got Milk?” dairy promotion, ads calling pork “the other white meat” and the beef program.

All or nothing, Scalia implies
Gregory Garre, an attorney for cattlemen who support the beef campaign, told justices that the whole industry had benefited from increased exports to other countries and consumer education.

“The part that’s good can’t save the whole thing,” Justice Antonin Scalia said.

And Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said “there is something offensive” about forcing farmers to pay for ads they do not support.

Still, the court seemed divided on how to settle the case.

“Every time we pay general taxes, we’re supporting government speech we may not agree with,” Scalia said.

Some justices also seemed concerned that a ruling against the government would hurt efforts to force cigarette makers to pay for ads warning about the dangers of smoking.

“The ultimate beneficiary of the advertising is the consumer,” said Edwin Kneedler, a lawyer for the Bush administration, who defended the beef campaign.

He said the government, believing beef should be part of Americans’ diets, formed the program to help small farmers who could not mount a national campaign on their own.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and several other court members appeared skeptical of claims that the beef program was government speech, giving the cattle farmers no right to challenge it. She said government public health experts would not encourage people to eat lots of red meat.

Supporters say campaign’s a good deal
Beef producers are required to pay a $1-a-head fee on cattle sold in the United States, which generates more than $80 million a year for ads, research and educational programs on mad cow disease. Federal officials oversee how the money is spent.

Producers get back $5.67 for every dollar they contribute in increased prices because of the program, supporters contend.

However, Laurence Tribe, a professor at Harvard Law School representing farmers who oppose the program, said the money never made it to the 850,000 individual cattle producers. Instead, he said, restaurants, grocery stores and slaughterhouses got the benefits.

Tribe said the ad campaign was intended to help, but “the road to hell is often paved with good intentions.”

Among the complaints are that the ads do not specifically promote U.S. beef, helping beef importers who do not have to contribute, and that generic promotions do little good for specialized farmers.

The government was sued by ranchers who sell cattle in South Dakota and Montana. They won an appeals court ruling that found the 20-year-old program violated the First Amendment.

The federal government and Nebraska cattlemen appealed to the high court, which has dealt before with questions about government authority to force farmers into joint programs.

In 1997, the court upheld advertising programs for California fruit. But in 2001, justices struck down a mandatory campaign for the mushroom industry.

The court has never decided, however, whether such programs are government speech.

Many groups and 34 states are supporting the government. Justices were told that in California alone, 48 mandatory programs are used to promote produce such as grapes and lettuce.

The cases are Veneman v. Livestock Marketing Association, 03-1164, and Nebraska Cattlemen v. Livestock Marketing Association, 03-1165.

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