Simmering for the past few months, battles over producer checkoffs were brought to a full boil last month. On Jan. 17, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) announced that the national mandatory pork checkoff program was terminated as the result of a nationwide referendum. The very next day, USDA announced there would be no referendum on your beef checkoff—at least not in the near future.

Both announcements stirred the controversy surrounding producer checkoffs, leaving factions from both industries jockeying for position and filing lawsuits. It appears to be a small-scale repeat of the conflict seen in Florida following the national election, only neither side from either industry is expected to bow out in a graceful Al Gore-fashion.

Some 30,347 pork producers voted in a referendum held late last summer, with nearly 53 percent of those votes opposed to continuing the pork checkoff. The mandatory pork program collected 45 cents for every $100 worth of hogs sold, generating $51.4 million for fiscal year 2001. The program has been in place since 1986.

Immediately, those on the short end of the vote cried foul. Leaders of pork’s “Vote Yes Task Force” claim to have numerous examples of flaws in the referendum voting process. A group of independent pork producers, the Michigan Pork Producers and the National Pork Producers Council united to file for an injunction to overturn the results of the referendum. And a federal judge in Michigan, Richard Enslen, issued a restraining order allowing the checkoff to continue while the matter is reviewed in court. An initial hearing was held Feb. 2 where both parties were allowed to state their case. Any appeals would move to the Federal Court of Appeals, and from there, possibly, the U.S. Supreme Court.

Unlike the pork checkoff, the beef checkoff was given a reprieve when USDA officials declared as insufficient the petitions for a referendum. Ten percent of all cattle producers were required to sign a petition to call for the referendum, a number USDA pegged at 107,883. The Livestock Marketing Association (LMA) conducted a petition drive that collected 127,927 signatures and submitted those to USDA in Nov. 1999. Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC), an independent accounting firm hired by USDA to validate the signatures, found that no more than 83,464 of the signatures were valid. That means the petition drive fell 24,419 votes short, and that 1 out of every 3 signatures submitted was ruled invalid. PwC conducted a 100 percent hand count of the actual petitions. A copy of the PwC report is available at: http:/www.ams.usda.gov/lsg/mpb/rp-beef.htm

But similar to activity following the pork checkoff, those opposed to USDA’s decision decried the process. LMA spokesmen claim the validation process 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 heard arguments in the case Jan. 25.

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’s sad for both industries, because, regardless of the outcome, clearly the winner will be America’s poultry industry.