When the national pork checkoff came under fire, it created five Ds.

  • It disrupted the industry organizations’ — National Pork Board and National Pork Producers Council — work flow, programs and projects.
  • It distracted the industry, the producers and the NPB and NPPC staffs, with concerns about what lies ahead.
  • It delayed industry efforts and progress on important issues.
  • It divided alliances, focus and funding when NPB and NPPC were required to cut ties.
  • It duplicated efforts. NPB and NPPC are not the well-oiled machines they once were.

It has been a disheartening few years.  

The national pork checkoff program and the industry remain in flux as they enter the final legal battleground — the U.S. Supreme Court. On Feb. 15, USDA and the U.S. Department of Justice filed a request with the high court to hear the pork case. The beef checkoff also is awaiting the court’s consideration. 

There are more than a dozen commodity checkoff cases in various stages of litigation. Theories abound as to which case or cases the Supreme Court will hear, or whether the justices will simply turn them all away.

Some believe the pork and beef checkoffs will be combined into one case. Others believe the Supreme Court will lump even more checkoff cases together for review. Still others believe that the high court will deny a hearing because of lower courts’ rulings that spending mandatory funds on product promotion is unconstitutional based on individual First Amendment rights of free speech.

If that last scenario occurs, NPB would have 30 days to close the doors and turn off the lights. A five-person board of trustees would oversee the shutdown, and remain in place for 18 months to tie up loose ends.

What about programs and projects underway and receiving funding? There is an appropriate termination clause included in all current NPB contracts.

It is possible that NPPC could pick up some of NPB’s programs and projects — the ones that shareholders determine are a priority, and that the group can fund. That last point is significant.

Running solely on voluntarily contributions, NPPC pulls in $4.5 million a year. About $1.5 million of that comes from 793 producers — that’s not enough to address the legislative, regulatory and public policy issues that fall within NPPC’s responsibility. 

A representative for the nation’s largest pork producer told Pork Industry Forum delegates that “we’ve made a commitment to voluntarily contribute 45 cents per hog” if the checkoff ended. Of course, with that kind of money comes tremendous influence.

So what lies ahead besides more uncertainty?

NPB cannot talk about or assist in planning for a succeeding organization. 

NPPC can look ahead to the future. It has organized a One Industry Organization Task Force, which has already done some groundwork. That assignment intensified following this year’s Pork Forum where producer delegates asked the task force to present recommendations for establishing a single board, staff and office — as well as strategies to increase voluntary funding contributions — by this year’s World Pork Expo.

It was clear at Pork Forum that producers value the programs and projects they have, but they are frustrated that so many entities continue to dictate what happens in their businesses and their organizations. There was even a resolution that suggested killing the national pork checkoff in an effort to start over with a clean slate. 

Many producers want to get back to one industry organization. That does not necessarily mean it will be NPPC or any other familiar entity from the past. I believe there will be one industry organization — not just a producer organization. It will be funded voluntarily, and that means how much someone pays in will influence where and how the money is spent.

In the end, a future without a national pork checkoff would not be disastrous. But like the ever-changing pork industry, it would be very different.