A U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Monday struck a blow to agricultural checkoff programs. The high court ruled that a mandatory mushroom promotional campaign violates free-speech rights under the First Amendment.

Tennessee-based United Foods has refused to pay for the generic mushroom industry ads since 1996. The company contends that paying the promotional fee helps support its competitors.

The majority opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy says a U.S. appeals court was correct in holding the assessment unconstitutional. The appeals court drew a distinction between mushrooms and California tree fruit, a program the high court upheld. The appellate judges say mushrooms weren’t regulated by USDA and producers can’t be forced to pay for generic advertising.

“We’re still evaluating the mushroom decision and looking at how it might impact the pork program,” says Cindy Cunningham, assistant vice president of communications for the National Pork Board. She notes that the mushroom and pork checkoff programs are considerably different. The mushroom assessment fees are used primarily for promotion, whereas the pork checkoff focuses on research, education and promotion.

In response to the ruling on Tuesday, USDA Secretary Ann Veneman says the ruling might not have an impact on some of the other commodity promotion programs. In comments to reporters Tuesday, Veneman acknowledged USDA must now review the range of promotion programs being overseen by the government.

"The way this (the mushroom case) is distinguished, as I understand it, is that this is a promotion and research order only, as opposed to a full-blown marketing order," says Veneman.

She adds that the Supreme Court was making a distinction between the two kinds of programs, labeling the promotion and research order a violation of free speech because producers were required to pay for certain advertising.

Associated Press