You've no doubt noticed the year-end ritual of presenting the “best of” and the “worst of” lists for the year just ended. Music, movie and restaurant critics do it. Television news and entertainment programs do it. Reporters and critics pepper us with their lists.

I have a list, too. But mine looks ahead. In no particular order, here are a half dozen key issues facing the pork industry in 2003:

  1. A decision on the pork checkoff looms large. A verdict on the constitutionality of the pork checkoff will be addressed in the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals where a judge will rule on whether First Amendment rights of anti-checkoff enthusiasts have been violated. Their argument — they do not want their dollars contributing to promotion programs they disagree with.

    Other commodity checkoff programs are facing legal wranglings, too. Conflicting rulings by judges in the 8th and 9th Circuit Courts of Appeals on the constitutionality of the beef checkoff may lead the way in determining the fate of all checkoff programs. Appeals are likely to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, but that high court will only get involved if the rulings of the circuit courts disagree. Still, the odds of the Supreme Court hearing an appeal are pretty small, considering justices hear only about 2% of the appeals brought before them.

    Congress could intervene and rewrite the law(s) governing checkoff programs. However, finding the political clout needed by members of the House and Senate to champion this legislative process could be a little hard to come by.

    I still believe an industry, self-help program is worth fighting for. We must recognize, however, that the pork industry has changed dramatically since the Pork Act was drafted in 1985.

    Whether the mandatory pork checkoff survives may not be the real issue. The bottom line is — do you believe in the industry enough to invest in its future, and, would you do so voluntarily if the checkoff ruling comes down against the current program?

  2. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) recently issued new rules governing CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) with more than a thousand animal units (2,500 market hog equivalent). Those operations will be required to write and implement nutrient management plans and obtain water pollution permits by December 2006. The permitting authority in each state will set site-specific, nutrient application standards. Remember, the new farm bill provides an incentive-based platform to draw on. Technical and financial assistance is available through Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) funds.

  3. Animal welfare issues are here to stay. Despite numerous editorials by well-respected newspapers in Florida, admonishing its citizens to give Amendment 10 on the November ballot a thumbs-down, animal rights activists and their $1.4 million advertising blitz carried the day. The new constitutional amendment bans the use of gestation stalls. A similar referendum may find its way to a polling place near you. These anti-meat zealots have effectively waged their agendas on restaurants this past year, too. Never, ever underestimate their influence or their funds.

  4. The antibiotic resistance debate and the controversy surrounding the use of antibiotics for growth promotion in livestock feeds is sure to rage on. Although the link between antibiotic use in livestock feeds and antimicrobial resistance in humans has never been clearly made, pork producers must arm themselves with as much science-based knowledge as possible.

    In this industry, such challenges are often met with new approaches to old problems. Improved production practices and programs focusing on the strategic use of antibiotics has lowered overall usage and reduced production costs. We're seeing greater emphasis on genetic disease resistance and management of disease through improved diagnostics and vaccination programs.

  5. Air emissions and odor control will remain high on the list of sensitive issues. With over 300 compounds contributing to the smells emitted from your hog operation, the challenge is complex. I'm certain science will eventually prevail, but in the meantime, we need as much good research and sharing of information as this industry can muster up. When an Iowa jury handed down a $33 million award, including punitive damages, the stage was set for more lawsuits and legal shenanigans aimed at pork production systems operating in full compliance of all laws and rules.

  6. Ending on a cautiously optimistic note — hog prices look better in 2003. The December Hogs & Pigs report showed pretty much all hogs and pigs inventories down slightly, farrowing intentions following suit, and pigs per litter estimates holding steady. The coming year should pull most producers out of the red ink. Market prognosticators are predicting prices at or above breakevens for most of the year.