Ratcheting up its pressure on the U.S. pork sector, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) filed a lawsuit on Monday against USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. HSUS is specifically targeting the transfer of and payment for the advertising slogan “Pork. The Other White Meat” from the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) to the National Pork Board (NPB) as an “unlawful” act.

NPPC developed the slogan in 1987, and while it was used in checkoff-funded advertising programs, NPPC held the rights to it. In 2006, NPB agreed to purchase the iconic slogan from NPPC for $3 million annually for 20 years or a total of $60 million.

Filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the plaintiffs in the suit include HSUS and Harvey Dillenburg, a pork producer in Adair County Iowa. The suit claims the deal between the two groups allows mandatory pork checkoff dollars to “be diverted into industry lobbying efforts aimed at harming animal welfare and small farmers.” Secretary Vilsack is involved because under the legislative pork checkoff program (aka the Pork Act) USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) approves all programs and funding allocations. USDA, in fact would have had to approve NPB’s purchase of the slogan.

Dillenburg reports that he has been paying and continues to pay into the National Pork Checkoff, and that he is not a member of NPPC. HSUS argues that NPPC’s efforts are counter to Dillenberg’s interests. HSUS reports that it brings this court action on its own behalf and that of its members.

HSUS argues that, “NPPC has consistently expended significant funds to fight HSUS policy and legislative reforms related to humane practices in the care of farm animals.” As a result, the group contends, “[s]ince HSUS resources would otherwise be spent on advocacy, legislation, and education related to improving the treatment of pigs and other animals, Defendant’s unlawful conduct directly impedes Plaintiff’s activities, and causes a significant drain on its resources and time.”

Of course at issue is the on-going dispute over the use of gestation stalls. HSUS has been lobbying food companies to ban the housing practice from pork supply chains. To date, 30 have complied with deadlines ranging from 2017 to 2022. HSUS also cites NPPC’s efforts to work against federal housing standards for egg-laying hens orchestrated between HSUS and the United Egg Producers. NPPC argues that it sets a dangerous precedent for all of animal agriculture.  

In response to the latest lawsuit, NPPC CEO Neil Deirks said, the council is reviewing the HSUS complaint, “but it appears there is no legal merit to this claim, and it is another desperate attempt by the radical activist group to severely curtail animal agriculture and take away consumer food choices.”

He added, “This also is the latest bullying tactic by HSUS in its efforts to force NPPC to abandon its position on allowing farmers to choose production practices that are best for the welfare of their animals. Over the past few months, HSUS has threatened NPPC with a Federal Trade Commission complaint; filed notice of its intent to sue a number of hog operations over alleged emissions reporting violations; and charged that NPPC was responsible for the deaths of hogs in barn fires because the organization asked to give input on national fire standards for agricultural facilities. All of the allegations lack merit.”

USDA AMS Deputy Director of Public Affairs Shayla Bailey, told Pork Network that "USDA does not comment on pending legal matters, so we have no comment at this time."

Under the National Pork Checkoff, all U.S. pork producers contribute $0.40 for each $100 value of hogs sold. Importers of pork products contribute a like amount, based on a formula. Checkoff funds can be used only for research, promotion and education programs for which NPB is responsible.

NPPC is a membership-based organization that focuses on legislation, regulations and public policy issues on behalf of the U.S. pork industry. It does not receive checkoff funds.   

HSUS is the largest animal protection organization in the United States, representing 11 million members and has an estimated $100 million in annual income.

You can read the complaint here.

NPB’s response to the HSUS complaint is available here.