Representatives of the nation's meat industry have a beef with the state of California over a new law imposing what they say amounts to an unconstitutional import duty on their products.

The law, which took effect Feb. 1, requires out-of-state meat packers to pay an assessment on beef brought into the state, whether on the hoof or in a box.

To the National Meat Association and the American Meat Institute, along with 11 out-of-state packers who are challenging the law in federal court, the statute is sort of "New Federalism" gone wrong. California, they argue, is behaving as though the Articles of Confederation had never been written.

"It's discrimination," said NMA President John Mohay. "It's taxation without representation. Hell, we fought a revolution over that."

The law imposes a fee of roughly $1.20 per head on live cattle brought into the state for slaughter. Assessments on carcass, boned and boxed beef from other states also work out to about $1.20 per animal. The assessments are expected to bring in $4.5 million a year, which is to be turned over to the California Beef Council to promote the sale of beef within California.

The meat industry has been depressed for the last five or six years, and the nationwide per capita consumption of beef has decreased by about 30 pounds per year.

To help counter that, the meat industry raises money for promotion activities through a complicated set of "check off" programs that vary from state to state. The programs, mandatory in some states and voluntary in others, require that fees be paid to various state and quasi-state agencies, such as the California Beef Council, every time a head of cattle is sold.

Producers of other edible commodities have similar programs at the national level. An assessment on every carton of eggs sold by an egg producer, for example, goes to the American Egg Board to promote the consumption of eggs.

The problem with the California law, according to the meat industry attorneys, is that California beef producers don't have to pay the fee. That, says meat industry attorney James Kefauver, violates the commerce clause of the Constitution, which prohibits states from imposing an undue burden on interstate commerce.

"California's just gotten greedy," says Mohay.

But John Tooker, a lobbyist for the California Cattlemen's Association, responds: "That's a lot of bull."

Tooker admits the law is a mite confusing, but says Californians really end up paying more than their out-of-state competitors.

The law requires that one dollar be paid to the California Beef Council every time a head of cattle is sold within California. Tooker claims that a California steer is sold an average of three times before it reaches the slaughterhouse, so "California cowboys are paying about $3.25 per carcass," as opposed to roughly $1.20 per carcass for out-of-state producers.

Herb Cohen, legal counsel to California's food and agriculture department, said the law is not discriminatory because "when it's broken down, about the same amount is being paid per carcass by California cattlemen" as by out-of-state producers.

"This is unusual legislation, there's no doubt," Cohen said. "But there are many burdens on out-of-state commerce, and they go back as far as the Constitution. The federal court will have to make a determination as to whether this is an unreasonable burden."