The day I sat down to write this editorial, my e-mail chimed and, lo and behold, there was the announcement: “Supreme Court Overturns Lower Court's Pork Checkoff Ruling.”
On the heels of the decisive vote on the beef checkoff case (6 supportive, 3 opposed), where the Supreme Court ruled the Beef Promotion Act does not violate citizens' First Amendment rights, the justices sent the pork checkoff case back to the Sixth District Court of Appeals for them to reconsider.
Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, defending the majority decision of the beef case, noted that the government controls the board membership (Secretary of Agriculture must approve board members), the messages (all must be screened and cleared by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service [AMS]), and an AMS staff person is present at all board meetings. In other words, the government controls constitute “government speech,” and therefore do not compromise individual's First Amendment rights. And, in the justices' opinion, the same controls apply to the pork checkoff.
I had been anticipating the pork checkoff announcement, so I had been trying to compose a catchy lead-in for this column. For some odd reason, a verse from a country western song kept popping into my mind: “What you gonna do when the new wears off and the old shines through?”
The question posed in the Clay Walker tune is really a warning that once the newness of a situation or relationship wears off, old habits and characteristics will surely resurface.
In an odd way, the verse fits current pork industry circumstances. Many will revel in the good news of the checkoff decision. But, sooner or later, old challenges facing the industry will be brought back to the table.
Remember the “What ifs”
This is a good time to sit back and think hard about the “what if” scenarios we had been running through our minds as the pork checkoff's future hung in the balance. What if funding for the research, education and promotion programs were lost?
Some of these scenarios have been discussed and voted on by delegates to National Pork Board and the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) annual meetings. Top among them is the question of “fair contribution” to the checkoff-funded programs balanced against the need for more unrestricted (non-checkoff) funds, which allows NPPC to tackle tough regulatory and policy issues.
Although the pork checkoff is mandatory, the Pork Act dictates the rate can be set anywhere between zero and 0.50% of total value of a market hog. Only a referendum would allow the rate to go higher.
We all know there are sacred cows (pigs) in both industry organizations. But now, more than ever, it is critically important to create consensus on program priorities.
Top of mind are the insightful thoughts from industry leaders in the “Visionary” section of our 50th Anniversary issue (May 15, 2005, page 44). Chief among the comments in the “pork industry organizations” section was a universal call for one industry organization.
There's no question in my mind that the Pork Board and NPPC serve critical needs and strive to deliver maximum value, whether those funds are collected through the pork checkoff or offered voluntarily through the NPPC's Strategic Investment Program.
But in this modern, fast-paced, highly competitive and totally wired electronic world we live in, there is no room for complacency. Like any modern business, the push to achieve more and more with shrinking resources will intensify.
From my perspective, I'm very relieved that checkoff dollars for research will remain available. This is particularly critical to address current challenges such as solving the PRRS puzzle, dealing with air quality and odor issues, and cultivating disease resistance through genetics.
And, it is important to remember, 96% of the world's pork is consumed outside the United States. Would the checkoff dollars being spent on promoting pork to U.S. consumers be better allocated to gaining a greater share of the world pork market?
As the newness of the Supreme Court decision wears off, it is imperative that all pork producers participate in these discussions and priority-setting sessions. We have enjoyed excellent profits in recent months, but we all know that supply and demand dictates. It's time to put aside whatever differences exist between the pro- and anti-checkoff factions and the mandatory vs. voluntary checkoff advocates and work harder toward the common good.
Our industry will continue to face environmental, swine health, export, animal welfare and consumer issues. “When the new wears off and the old shines through,” be ready to get involved in shaping and supporting your pork industry's future.