Should a check-off organization be allowed to pay a lobbying organization for its intellectual property?
That’s the issue at the heart of a legal challenge focused on the well-known advertising slogan, “Pork: The other white meat.” The sale of the intellectual property to the National Pork Board, a checkoff supported organization supervised by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, from the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) is being called into question in a case brought up by activists groups.
During June’s World Pork Expo in Des Moines, Iowa, NPPC CEO Neil Dierks sat down with WATT Global Media to discuss the case and its implications.
The background of the case
The sale took place in 2006, Dierks said, because it made more sense for the consumer-oriented National Pork Board to own the slogan and the “pork mark,” a pork chop shaped logo associated with the campaign, rather than the policy-oriented NPPC. The USDA approved a $35 million sale of the materials. The price is being paid in installments over a 20-year period since the purchase was approved.
Six years after the sale was approved, the purchase was challenged by a number of activist groups and pork producers. Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (ICCI), a group Dierks called an anti-pork industry organization, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and a number of producers sued the USDA on the grounds that its decision to approve the sale was inappropriate.
Since 2012, the case has been thrown out for lack of standing, appealed, and sent back to district court, where it remains today. Dierks said the next round of litigation will likely not begin until the end of the year. The court allowed the NPPC to join the USDA and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack as a defendant against the HSUS, ICCI and a pork producer.
What the activists are trying to achieve
Beyond obstructionism, Dierks said, the activists may be trying to use the legal action to reduce the NPPC’s funding and therefore its potency.
The challenge questions whether the National Pork Board, a federally supervised entity which receives funding from all pork farmers through the mandatory check-off program, should be giving its money to a lobby group aimed at shaping public policy surrounding the pork business. Dierks said one of the key reasons the case is being considered is because a pork producer is a plaintiff, which gives standing to the argument that not all pork producers agree with the NPPC’s political goals.
The creation of the other white meat slogan and intellectual property predates the 1985 Farm Bill that established the pork check-off. Dierks said the NPPC allowed the pork board to use the property without any royalty fees for years, then when the NPPC and pork board split their general contractor relationship, the pork board began paying royalties on the property until the sale was made.
Dierks said the annual payments are a “decent size” of the NPPC’s annual budget, but taking that money away won’t change the organization.
“The reality of it is, it’s not going to change our policies. Our policies are set by the producers and what they decide to work on, we’re going to work on,” Dierks said. “They think it would put a torpedo in the NPPC, which it won’t.”
Why it matters to producers
Pork producers should care about the outcome of the case because the pork board should own the valuable marketing materials and put them to use to promote the industry, Dierks said.
As part of the litigation, the USDA estimated the total intellectual property is worth between $113 million to $132 million, almost four times the NPPC’s price. The advertising and slogan are one of the most successful campaigns ever, Dierks said, with more than 80 percent of American consumers recognizing the other white meat tagline.
The legal action is not preventing the Pork Board from using the slogan nor defending it from being appropriated by others looking to cash in on the campaign’s fame. Dierks said the NPPC owns the intellectual property and should use it as part of its mission to promote the product to U.S. consumers.