Let there be light on pork checkoffs
Farm and Food File by Alan Guebert
On Aug. 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia gave members of the National Pork Producers Council and the farmer-directors of the checkoff-collecting National Pork Board one more reason to loathe the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).
In a terse, 11-page order, Circuit Judge Cornelia T. Pillard lit the blowtorch on a long-smoldering lawsuit that promises to set the NPPC and NPB’s hair on fire.
Plaintiffs are the Humane Society, the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and a pork producer named Harvey Dillenburg. They “claim that the National Pork Board has misappropriated millions of dollars from a fund for pork promotion,” Pillard wrote.
“The plaintiffs filed suit in federal district court and the court dismissed their claim for lack of standing. We reverse.”
Those final two words promise to open the door on one of the sweetest “sweetheart deals” ever pulled off in the deeply checkered history of federal commodity checkoffs.
This deal, laid out in the original 2012 lawsuit, began in 2006 when the checkoff board, with the approval of the secretary of the Department of Agriculture, bought four trademarks with the slogan “Pork: The Other White Meat” from the National Pork Producers Council — for $60 million.”
It was a sugar-soaked deal because the checkoff board already, in 1986, had spent $4.5 million for the development and implementation of “The Other White Meat” slogan.
In August 1987, NPPC filed a trademark application for the slogan despite federal checkoff language that, according to the Humane Society lawsuit, “dictates that trademarks developed with checkoff funds shall belong to the United States government.”
For nearly 20 years, “Pork: The Other White Meat” continued to be the board’s primary advertising message each year through the 2006 purchase date. All was paid for entirely from checkoff dollars.
In between, however, a 1999 USDA Office of Inspector General report concluded that the checkoff board had “relinquished too much authority” to the NPPC. The office recommended a separation of the checkoff board and the NPPC.
Shortly thereafter, hog farmers, distrustful of both groups, voted in a national referendum to kill the checkoff. The incoming Bush Administration’s new USDA boss, Ann Veneman, however, negotiated a deal to separate the board and the NPPC and life for both went on despite the producer vote.
A key part of the Veneman deal gave the board “most trademarks and property ownership” developed under contract except for — you guessed it — “The Other White Meat” slogan. It was licensed by NPPC to the board “at the rate of one dollar per year.”
By 2004, though, the board and NPPC had a new deal in place that paid the NPPC $818,000 per year for the trademark, not $1. The board’s boss at the time, Steve Meyer, wrote that the increase would “allow the NPPC to get the money they need for the next four years.”
In 2006, that fee became $3 million per year for 20 years when the board agreed to purchase the trademark from the NPPC.
In 2011, however, the board shelved “The Other White Meat” campaign (for the uninspiring “Pork: Be Inspired”) but the $3 million annual payments continued.
According to the initial, 2012 lawsuit filed by Humane Society, the money was simply “checkoff expenditures being used to further NPPC programs that are intended to influence legislation and government policy which constitute prohibited uses” under the federal laws that implemented the checkoff in 1986.
The Aug. 14 appeals court ruling means the 2012 suit will proceed and USDA will be forced to produce a record of what happened under its administrative watch. That will be embarrassing.
It could also prove embarrassing for federally chartered checkoffs, many of which resemble government-mandated, non-refundable slush funds used by Big Ag to promote Big Ag.
Little wonder, then, why Big Meat hates the Humane Society. It is shining lights into corners that most in U.S. agriculture, often even USDA, want kept dark.
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