Sunday, November 30, 2008

Do pork producers want the right to vote on their checkoff program?

Pork producers and importers who want the pork checkoff program to be subjected to a referendum must submit a form to USDA between Dec. 8 and Jan. 2.

If 15 percent of producers and importers say they want a referendum on the Pork Checkoff Program, a referendum would be held within one year after the results are announced. But, conveniently, the whole thing is set up so that failing to express a view counts the same as voting against a referendum.

A USDA press release, website, and Federal Register announcement (.pdf) summarize the procedures for pork producers and importers to let their views be heard. Although the Federal Register announcement includes a link to the form producers and importers are supposed to use, I cannot find the form at the link given, or any other obvious place on USDA's website. Unless I have missed something, this will make it very difficult for producers to exercise their rights.

The 4-week window for submissions was announced by USDA on Nov. 13, giving producers who want the opportunity to vote a very short time to spread the word, especially given the timing over the holiday season.

The pork checkoff program used the Federal Government's powers of taxation to collect $63 million in mandatory assessments in 2008 from pork producers and importers, to fund advertising and promotion efforts, including those using the slogan "Pork. The Other White Meat." The money is overseen by the National Pork Board, a semi-public entity that gives most of it in contracts to the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), the industry's private-sector trade association. All Pork Board supported advertising messages must be approved by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), which oversees the program and has part of its resulting administrative expenses paid by pork producers' checkoff money.

There are many reasons why pork producers and importers might feel they deserve the chance to vote on whether the mandatory checkoff program should continue. For example:

1. The pork checkoff program is an ineffective way of increasing consumer demand for pork. The program's own official estimates find that a 10% increase in generic pork advertising leads to a 0.21% increase -- one fifth of 1% -- in the quantity of pork consumed.

2. The pork checkoff program is bruising for a fight with the nutrition and health community, which may come to a head early in the new administration. It may turn out to be a terrible liability for pork producers to have their advertising program controlled by the federal government. For example, under the slogan "Counting Carbs? Pork's Perfect," the pork checkoff program's website promoted low-carb fad weight loss diets until 2007, when I filed a petition to have this slogan removed on grounds that it contradicts the federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The slogan was removed from the websites, and USDA said the program is no longer using the slogan, though without exactly confirming that the change was in response to the petition. If producers were less dependent on the federal government for approval of advertising programs, the producers would have more control over their own marketing messages. There may be similar reasons why pork producers would not want to rely so heavily on a new federal government administration with an increasingly environmental outlook.

3. A well-designed voluntary checkoff program, which would not require federal powers of taxation to force unwilling producers to pay up, might be reasonably successful at raising funds anyway. A recent article in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics explored clever voluntary payment mechanisms.

4. The NPPC, the National Pork Board, and USDA have never given a public accounting to producers or anybody else, explaining in detail how they arrived at the $60 million dollar price tag for the property rights to the "Other White Meat" brand, which the NPPC sold to the National Pork Board in 2006. My Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request yielded highly censored documents, which showed only that somebody has something to hide in this whole unseemly affair. Insufficient information has been provided to verify that this appraisal was correct and legitimate.

5. Producers were denied their rights to approve the checkoff program in 2000, so the current program has only the window-dressing but none of the substance of a voluntary program. I asked USDA recently if there wasn't supposed to be some evidence of continuing producer support for the checkoff program. The reply by email said, "The Pork Board is only required by the Act to have an initial referendum within 24 to 30 months of the onset of the program. The last referendum for the Pork Checkoff program was conducted in September 2000, as a result of a petition by producers. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman determined the results as non-binding." Just like that.

If you hear anything more about this issue, please post it in the comments. I have seen just about no coverage of this issue in the mainstream press or the agricultural press. I couldn't find anything prominently posted on the website for Pork magazine. Is there some code of silence thing going on here?

1 comment:

Brian Depew said...

I am always glad to see you write about this topic, Parke. I was a small pork producer in 2000 and I voted in the first election. The simple vanquishing of a democratic vote still smarts to this day.

A lot of family farm advocacy efforts went into securing the first vote and fighting Veneman's decision to ignore the results.

I have two worries about this new effort. One, there are even fewer family farm pork producers left to vote this thing down. And two, I don't sense the energy exists in the family farm activist community to take this one on again.

It remains a noble charge.