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Pork checkoff – time to call it quits

By John Stencel

John Long, a pork producer from Weld County (Colorado), called me the other day with a very good question.

“How can the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) continue to collect and spend producers checkoff dollars when the pork checkoff program has been voted down by producers and twice ruled unconstitutional by federal courts?” he asked.

Good question, John.

The pork checkoff program was initiated in 1986, following a vote of U.S. pork producers to tax themselves in order to jointly pay for pork promotions. Within the act and order passed in 1986, was a provision for the pork producers to rescind the program. That program was exercised in 1998, when a group of hog producers initiated a petition drive to put to a vote whether or not to continue the pork checkoff. The vote took place in 2000, with 53 percent of the 30,000 pork producers who voted casting their ballots against continuing the checkoff.

So, the checkoff ended in 2000, right? WRONG. Incoming U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman refused to allow the referendum vote to end the checkoff to stand. Following inquiries and investigations, Veneman sided with the NPPC, citing inadequate petition gathering as justification to continue the checkoff. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, thought the opponents of the pork checkoff. Their next move was to file a lawsuit charging the pork checkoff is unconstitutional. Two judges have agreed with them. The latest is a ruling by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which said that the mandatory pork checkoff program is “unconstitutional and should end.”

That was Oct. 22, 2003. Guess what, the NPPC is still collecting mandatory checkoff dollars from pork producers.

“What?” you say. . . I agree. If pork producers want to end their own program that they voted in, they should be able to do so.

Perhaps a snapshot of the U.S. pork industry will provide some insight into why producers who once supported the checkoff are now calling for its end. According to Long, per capita pork consumption between 1980 and 1999 declined about 3 pounds per year. This amounts to more than three-quarters a billion pounds per year. More important to the hog producers’ bottom line is that the producers share of the pork retail dollar has declined from 56 percent in 1980 to 49 percent in 1990 to just 25 percent in 1998 (the year for which the latest USDA statistics are available to the public).
“Five of the last seven years have been losses for pork producers as a whole,” John told me.

John now vehemently opposes the pork checkoff because he believes it has encouraged consolidation in the pork processing and retailing sectors and driven many independent producers out of business.

Concerning continuing the pork checkoff, John suggests producers ask themselves if they are better off now than in 1986 when the pork checkoff was started.

“We also need to ask our elected and appointed representatives to be accountable to those they represent,” Long said. “I have appealed to U.S. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, who represents Weld County, which voted down the checkoff eight to one, to stop the NPPC from collecting these funds. She won’t even talk to me.”

Perhaps readers of this column will have better luck contacting their elected representatives than John Long has had. I urge you to write, call or e-mail your senators and U.S. House representative and urge them to represent the majority of pork producers who voted to end collection of checkoff dollars. An easy way of doing this is through National Farmers Union’s website www.nfu.org This website lets you type in your zip code and go directly to a screen to write your members of Congress. It will only take a few minutes; do it TODAY!