The mandatory national pork checkoff will continue for at least another two years thanks to a settlement between pork producers and USDA reached on Feb. 28.
This agreement comes after a federal judge in Michigan issued a temporary restraining order blocking USDA from publishing the final rule in the Federal Register that would have terminated the checkoff. A preliminary injunction hearing was scheduled for Feb. 2, but USDA requested a delay so its lawyers, the U.S. Department of Justice, could further review the case. The case was rescheduled for March 16.
The original lawsuit filed by a group of independent pork producers, the Michigan Pork Producers Association and National Pork Producers Council, hinged on three issues.
- First, did the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture overstep his legal authority as granted by the Pork Act to call for a referendum even without the proper number of qualified signatures?
- Second, how did numerous voting irregularities affect the true outcome of the vote?
- Third, did the USDA Secretary have the authority to terminate the checkoff?
Judging by the settlement, the pork producers apparently had strong legal grounds on which to stand.
While the settlement essentially is a victory for the plaintiffs, changes will be made in the checkoff implementation.
For starters, the agreement calls for a distinct separation between NPPC and the National Pork Board, thus terminating NPPC’s role as general contractor for checkoff-funded programs. This leaves NPPC to focus on legislative and regulatory issues, which will require money from noncheckoff and unrestricted funds for its Washington, D.C., office– the likely new headquarters for the council.
Therefore, the Pork Board will implement the checkoff-funded research, promotion and education programs. It’s likely that many of the current NPPC employees will shift to the Pork Board to continue working on checkoff-related programs and projects involving promotion, education and research. It also means that the national checkoff will continue to override state checkoffs and that state association funding will continue as previously directed.
USDA is directed to survey eligible pork producers and importers no sooner than June 2003, to determine whether 15 percent or more favor another referendum. This allows producers a future opportunity to voice their support or concerns with the checkoff.
“This agreement keeps us out of the court battle,” says Craig Jarolimek, NPPC producer president, Forest River, N. D. “There are things here that both sides can hang its hat on. USDA did an excellent job of mediating it. Now, if we can just continue to agree on what this organization should be. This is where producers need to step in and be at the forefront.”
He notes there is no set timetable for the transition involving NPPC and the Pork Board, mainly because of the large number of existing projects and employees to be considered.
Whether the checkoff opponents will seek additional action within the legal system is not known at this time.