Monday, August 17, 2015

U.S. Court of Appeals revives lawsuit over $60 million sale of "Pork the Other White Meat" slogan

In a setback for the federal "checkoff" generic advertising and promotion program for pork, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on August 14 revived a lawsuit (.pdf) brought by Iowa pork farmer Harvey Dillenburg and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

Dillenburg and the HSUS objected to a 2006 deal in which the semi-public federal pork checkoff program agreed to pay $60 million to the National Pork Producers Council (a private-sector trade association). The U.S. Food Policy blog began investigating this strange transaction shortly afterwards, and I eventually filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to acquire the appraisal documents that supposedly justified this large payment. To this day, the checkoff program pays $3 million in producer money each year to the NPPC for the "Pork the Other White Meat" slogan, even though the slogan is barely used any more.

A lawsuit by Dillenburg and HSUS was dismissed in 2013, on grounds that Dillenburg lacked standing. The new ruling this week by the federal appeals court reversed the ruling, saying that it is plausible that Dillenburg and other pork farmers were harmed by the "sweetheart deal" between the pork checkoff program and the NPPC.

Some pork industry organizations may want to revise their smug 2013 press statements about the lawsuit's earlier dismissal. The lawsuit will proceed in the lower court on its merits. The U.S. Court of Appeals did not tell the lower court how to rule, but it did give an eloquent and coherent summary of the problems with the $60 million sale.

Some pork producers who follow this story may wonder about the way their money has been spent. Quite understandably, producers may not be too vocal in endorsing a lawsuit in which the Humane Society is a party, because the society has been critical of the pork industry on several grounds in the past. Still, I imagine that some pork producers who read the new ruling (.pdf) will find it sensible.

Read additional coverage by Jack Bouboushian at Courthouse News Service ("Pork Board Must Answer for Spending Millions on Dead Slogan") and by Agri-Pulse:
In court documents, the plaintiffs of the case claim the Pork Board “did not buy the slogan (from NPPC) for its value as a marketing tool.” Rather, they say the purchase - to be doled out in $3 million increments for the next 20 years - was used “as a means to cut a sweetheart deal with (NPPC) to keep (NPPC) in business and support its lobbying efforts.” They say the board “overpaid for the slogan” and that the Pork Board's shift to the “Pork: Be Inspired” campaign “makes the initial slogan all but worthless.”

U.S. pork producers and importers pay $0.40 per $100 of value when pigs are sold and when pigs or pork products are brought into the U.S. to fund the checkoff. It is a violation of the federal orders that established checkoffs to use funds for lobbying interests. In a blog post, HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle called the ruling “a potentially enormous win for animal welfare groups, small farmers, and environmentalists - since they've all felt the wrath of the NPPC's intense lobbying efforts.”

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