The Humane Society of the United States filed a federal lawsuit on Monday claiming the National Pork Board, a quasi-governmental entity funded by mandatory farmer contributions called checkoffs, illegally funneled millions of dollars to an industry lobbying group under the guise of buying the old marketing slogan “Pork: The Other White Meat.”
The animal welfare organization looked into the 2006 purchase and alleges the pork board paid $60 million — far above the famous slogan’s estimated value of $36.1 million — to the National Pork Producers Council, a lobbying group that it says shouldn’t have owned the slogan’s rights in the first place. The purchase is being meted out in $3 million annual payments to the NPPC, with each installment approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a co-defendant in the lawsuit along with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Those millions, in turn, have helped fund the pork council’s lobbying campaigns that work to undermine the Humane Society’s efforts to, among other things, end the use of gestation crates among pork producers
, the Washington-based nonprofit group claims.
The payments “allow the [National Pork] Board and NPPC to evade federal restrictions against the use of pork checkoff dollars for purposes of influencing legislation and government policy,” the suit alleges about the mandatory pig farmer contributions .
The Humane Society wants the USDA to halt further payments to the pork industry lobbyists and to “recover already distributed funds” paid to the group since 2006, according to the complaint. That would be approximately $21 million.
Agricultural Marketing Services, the USDA agency that oversees the National Pork Board, declined to comment today. Both the National Pork Board and the pork lobby issued statements defending the purchase of the trademarked slogan.
The pork board said that the lobby “created the trademark prior to the formation of the National Pork Board in 1986” and that the $60 million sale price reflects the fact that the pork council agreed to “finance” the payments. The pork producers’ chief executive, Neil Dierks, issued a statement yesterday saying the complaint has “no legal merit” and “is another desperate attempt by the radical activist group to severely curtail animal agriculture and take away consumer food choices.” (Full disclosure: The author’s wife works in the publications department of the Humane Society.)
In its lawsuit, the Humane Society lays out a timeline for the creation of both the National Pork Board and the “Other White Meat” campaign. The complaint says that the pork board was created after Congress passed the Pork Promotion, Research and Consumer Information Act of 1985 and that, as part of that so-called Pork Act, the board receives a checkoff — a small percentage of every $100 valuation — when producers and importers sell their pigs to packers. That money, according to the Pork Act, is supposed to finance “an effective and coordinated program of promotion, research, and consumer information” to benefit the pork industry and can’t be used for lobbying.