Fight, never settle

Pig farmers from across the United States gathered last week in Indianapolis, Ind., for the 2016 Pork Industry Forum, which includes the annual business meeting of the National Pork Producers Council and the Pork Checkoff, separately.  

While the Pork Forum is never short of delegate action or news, this year a particular action by the USDA came to the forefront and quickly united pork producers. I was fortunate enough to witness the historical moment.  

Throughout my traveling this season of agriculture meetings, I heard state affiliates discuss the reincarnation of the Humane Society of the United States lawsuit over the sale of “Pork, the other white meat” trademarks — a contract between NPPC and National Pork Board, legally approved by the USDA. Originally, the lawsuit was filed in 2012. The U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of the USDA fought the legal action. Until last fall, the DOJ and USDA had continued to fight the HSUS appeals. So, when NPPC and NPB received word that annual contract payment was on hold and the NPB was directed to spend funds on reappraisals of those trademarks, it raised red flags with organizations and lawmakers. In true industry fashion, pork leaders and lawmakers started to ask the hard questions and both contract parties — NPPC and NPB — soon learned from DOJ and USDA that they were not allowed to participate in the negotiation with HSUS at all — a statement that baffles me. It was painfully obvious that the agency remedy to the situation was to settle with an activist group rather than fight.

However, it was the testimony of USDA Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on the record in a U.S. House Agriculture Committee held last week that the industry started to get a peek into the situation at hand.

During the NPPC business meeting, the video of the testimony aired on the big screen. At the hearing, Vilsack says “It was a decision made in concert with the industry. The industry has been involved in the discussion.”

As a witness, I can easily say the video stirred strong emotions for those in the room and that was probably an understatement. After the video finished, NPPC chief executive officer Neil Dierks asked, “Can I have a show of hands of everybody who talked to the USDA and suggested they get a settlement?” Not one hand was raised in a room full of hog farmers and pork industry leaders.

During the NPB business meeting, one by one Pork Act Delegates approached the microphone to support North Carolina’s advisement: Petition of Secretary Vilsack to preserve and defend National Pork Board statutory authority and independence.  

Once again, NPB President Derrick Sleezer asked the Pork Act delegates did anyone in the industry direct the USDA to settle.

Not one word, not one sound uttered. Silence among farmers is rarely observed.

In an action for the record books, the delegates of the NPB — appointed by the USDA — not only unanimously approved the advisement but also unanimously co-sponsored the petition. One strong voice with true grit signaled the industry is prepared to fight against any entity trying to damage the ability to exercise its judgment in marketing pork.

Still, many questions race in my mind as I analyze the facts before me. What was the “switch” that made the USDA to throw it in reverse and cave to the HSUS? Exactly, how do you settle a lawsuit involving a contract that legally only entails two parties — NPPC and NPB — that are not allowed to participate in the negotiation?

Moreover, how can Vilsack say on record “Pork, the other white meat” brand is dead. The brand still rates high with consumers today. Even though the NPB has evolved the marketing effort with consumer trends, the Other White Meat brand is the fifth most memorable promotional tagline in the history of contemporary advertising. This valuable asset of the pork industry should be in the hands of the NPB, the pork marketing caretaker.

But, the bigger question is: Is the agriculture community paying attention to actions of the government agencies — especially those overseeing our commodity checkoff programs. Is this a dangerous precedent to cave rather than fight? Are the political wheels of the presidential election season with a theme “not to create waves” hashing away at what is the right thing to do? What exactly is the deal sealed behind the political curtain?

The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service provides oversight of 20 research and promotion boards, including the NPB. Research and promotion programs, authorized by Congress, are requested, funded and driven by industry. The programs establish a framework to pool resources to develop new markets, strengthen existing markets and conduct important research and promotion activities. By design of the program, hog producers who actually pay the checkoff dollars are elected and approved by USDA to be good stewards of the checkoff dollars and globally promote pork.

In a check-and-balance effort, it is reasonable for the USDA to oversee the nation’s agriculture promotion boards and checkoff dollars, but who will actually keep the agencies from settling. My money is on the U.S. pork leaders. For me, I would rather see an industry that together stands up and fights rather than being dazzled by smoke and mirror speeches. 

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