Legal battles over both the pork and beef checkoffs are likely to be lengthy. The U.S. Department of Agriculture handed down decisions on both checkoffs just a day apart earlier this month, with dramatically different results.

The pork checkoff was set to end within 30 days of the Jan. 17 announcement, until a Michigan federal judge issued a restraining order keeping the program in place at least until he heard arguments in the case. The beef checkoff, however, remains in place indefinitely, as USDA ruled that not enough petitions were received to call for a referendum. But like the pork decision, the beef ruling generated a lawsuit from those on the losing side.

In both the beef and pork checkoff issues, USDA took months to announce the results. One could justifiably question whether politics played a role in the timing of the announcements. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman left office just three days after the pork announcement and just two days after the beef ruling. That means the fallout from both decisions will now go to new Ag Secretary Ann Veneman. And a new administration at USDA is likely to create at least some uncertainty over the checkoff issue.

In a statement issued following the beef checkoff announcement, Agricultural Marketing Service administrator Kathleen A. Merrigan issued a warning to all checkoffs. “This (beef) petition drive should serve as a reminder to all national checkoffs of their responsibility to stay in close touch with the producers who fund these programs, and that the activities they undertake be fully reflective of the marketing needs of all those in the industry.” She also noted that Secretary Glickman’s task force on checkoff programs called for producers to periodically vote on those programs. Glickman, in fact, endorsed that recommendation more than 18 months ago and called for regulations to be drafted to carry out the task force report.

The Livestock Marketing Association, which conducted the petition drive on the beef checkoff, claims the validation process on the beef checkoff was seriously flawed and legally improper. And Linda Rauser, chairwoman of the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) called the decision “outrageous.” LMA, WORC and others asked for an injunction against the use of checkoff funds to promote and defend the program among producers who pay the assessment. A federal court was to hear arguments in the case Jan. 25.

In a statement regarding the injunction on checkoff producer communications, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association president George Hall, Mustang, Okla., said, “NCBA believes that producer communications is an appropriate function of the Beef Board and State Beef Councils as outlined in the Act and Order. Since August 1999, USDA has approved all national producer communications materials. Checkoff investors have the right to know how their dollars are being invested. We are committed to continue focusing industry resources on programs that will increase demand for beef, which benefits all producers.”

With battle lines clearly drawn, the legal fight over both the pork and beef checkoffs could last years. Win or lose, depending on your point of view, the fight will be costly to both industries. The battles will draw precious time and resources away from critical projects such as improving product quality, convenience and food safety. And that sad for both industries, because, regardless of the outcome, clearly the winner will be America’s poultry industry.