The HSUS alleges in a lawsuit that hog farmers' interests are not being served by the National Pork Board funneling millions of farmer contributions to an industry lobbying group. (David Brown/The Washington Post/THE WASHINGTON POST)

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.

At issue here is, in part, whether the National Pork Producers Council created the “Other White Meat” campaign independent of the pork board, and therefore owned the slogan before 2006, or whether it used federal checkoff money to launch the advertising campaign, which could mean the slogan is owned by the U.S. government.

The lawsuit notes that in 1986, the National Pork Producers Council, “which had become the ‘general contractor’ for the board,” requested proposals from various advertising agencies, including the Bozell agency that eventually created the “Other White Meat” campaign. “NPPC liked the [Bozell] proposal, but needed the approval of the Pork Board before there could be any funding for promotions based on the newly created slogan,” the suit adds. (A January 1987 New York Times story also notes that the pork producers’ “Other White Meat” campaign was funded with a “federally mandated 0.25 percent tax on the first-time sale of any hog by the 110,000 national producers.”)

In an interview Tuesday afternoon, pork council spokesman Dave Warner disputed the Humane Society’s information. He reiterated that the “Other White Meat” campaign was created before the National Pork Board was in existence and therefore was the property of the pork lobby. Warner also said the advertising campaign’s creation was not financed with federal checkoff dollars.

Peter Brandt, the Humane Society’s senior attorney for farm animal litigation, said that ultimately it doesn’t matter who or what initially funded the “Other White Meat” campaign. The slogan, he said, earned its value only after years of promotion with checkoff money from the National Pork Board, which, the Humane Society estimates, sank $500 million into the advertising campaign from about 1987 to 2006. Incidentally, according to the National Pork Board’s statement yesterday, Northwestern University conducted a study in 2000 “that determined that ‘The Other White Meat’ was one of the five most recognizable taglines in contemporary advertising.”

“Even if you assume the council put some money in at the beginning,” Brandt said, “it’s quite clear that any additional value in the trademark was developed using checkoff funds.”

As a result, he added, the trademark slogan is, by federal law, “the property of the United States” and the pork lobby didn’t own the rights to sell it.

What’s more, the Humane Society says, because the pork board has retired the “Other White Meat” slogan, the USDA should stop authorizing the $3 million annual payments to the lobbying group, which Brandt said the federal agency is allowed to do. The pork board, in its statement, noted that it continues to use the slogan during meetings and other events.

The Humane Society complaint, Brandt said, is part self-preservation. The organization wants to derail the millions in federal checkoff dollars that are used to lobby against the animal group’s farm-based campaigns. (The Humane Society estimates that up to 30 percent of the lobbying group’s budget comes from checkoff dollars; the council says that it’s actually less than 20 percent of its gross budget revenues for 2012.)

Brandt said the suit is also about being accountable to the farmers who contribute checkoff dollars to the pork board. “We feel the USDA has to protect the interests of pig farmers who are forced to contribute to this system,” he said.