U.S. cattle producers will vote May 10 on whether to continue the $1 per head checkoff on every animal sold since Oct. 1, 1986.

Since it started, the checkoff has collected about $73 million. More than half of that money has been used for beef promotion and advertising and lesser amounts have been spent for research, consumer surveys, and educational efforts.Most of Utah's cattlemen and most cattle raisers in the West are expected to vote for the continuance of the $1 per head checkoff, but there may be some farmers in the East, especially those with only a few head of cattle, who may vote against it simply because it will cost them a few dollars each year. But overall, industry observers expect the beef referendum to pass.

If it does, you can expect more television commercials with actor James Garner cooking sizzling steaks on his outdoor grill and munching on thick slabs of beef.

His commercials probably don't thrill animal rights activists, who don't want animals raised to be slaughtered, or vegetarians, who would rather have a salad, or dieters, who are convinced that beef is bad for them.

Beef producers hope they can change some of these people's minds about beef. If the smell and taste of beef can't come through the television set in your living room, cattlemen hope they can convince you to eat more beef with hard, scientific facts and statistics that will be found in the print media, including health magazines.

Millions of American boys and girls grew up watching Saturday afternoon movies of Texas cowboys trying to get their herds to rail heads in Kansas. A good many cowboys suffered and died, on film, so that city people could eat steak.

For many people, the all-American meal in their home, as kids, was a beef pot roast, Swiss steak, pork chops or lamb roast. And if their parents went to a restaurant and had any money they ordered a steak.

Annual per capita beef consumption reached a high of 94 pounds (retail weight) in the late 1970s, but shortly after that many people started eating more turkey, chicken, and fish, believing that these non-red meats have less cholesterol and are, therefore, healthier foods.

Beef consumption began to decline sharply in about 1980, falling to an estimated 77 pounds per person in 1987. Consumption now appears to be holding steady at that level, but the increased popularity of turkey, chicken, and fish has injured the red meat industry, including beef, lamb, and pork, throughout this decade.

Beef producers are trying to counteract this trend. Part of the money raised by the $1 per head checkoff is being used to teach consumers about beef's nutritional values.

Advertising and public relations campaigns have helped farmers turn the tide a bit. Lately, lamb and pork consumption has been on the rise and the beef industry has recovered some of its lost customers.

Through workshops with dieticians and through educational materials in classrooms and supermarkets, consumers are learning that beef should be a part of a healthy, well-balanced diet.

Michael Sibbett, executive vice president of the Utah Cattlemen's Association, says a three-ounce serving of cooked, trimmed beef contains less than one-seventh of the American Heart Association's recommended daily fat intake.

As for cholesterol, a three-ounce serving of beef has the same amount of cholesterol as the same size serving of chicken, he said.

If you think steak is too expensive, Genevieve Larsen, president of the Utah Cattle Women, says:

"Look at what people have in their grocery carts . . . tooth paste, 42 cents an ounce; hair spray, 28 cents an ounce; prepared cereal, 22 cents an ounce; Jello, $1.38 an ounce; and Kool-Aid, 80 cents an ounce.

"I wonder if people realize they can buy a roast for 12 cents an ounce, the best choice steak for about 19 cents an ounce, and ground beef for 7 cents an ounce."

If the beef referendum passes, the Beef Board, which oversees how the checkoff money is spent, says it plans to place new emphasis on developing new products, on educational programs and restaurant and in-store promotion.

Taking a cue from the poultry industry, cattlemen realize the best prospect for increased beef sales rests with new product development, such as shelf-stable items to make more products available at room temperature. And you can expect more eye-catching promotional materials, including brochures, in stores and restaurants telling the story of beef.

The biggest challenge facing the beef industry is consumer attitudes, especially regarding cholesterol.

Industry leaders say today's retail beef is 27 percent learner than just five years ago. There are more than 200,000 physicians whose opinions and advice carry an enormous influence. Food editors, nutritionists, and teachers are also important opinion leaders.

Farmers need to convince these people that they have a good, healthy product and enlist their aid in telling the rest of the country about the positive aspects of beef.