About this time next year, the USDA will be polling U.S. pork producers and importers, asking whether they want to vote on the continuation of the legislative checkoff.

If 15% of qualified producers and importers say they want a referendum — they'll get one.

If you don't have a good understanding of the programs supported by the checkoff, you have 12 months to bone up before casting your ballot.

Here's a challenge for you — when you open your mail, read an industry magazine, check a Web site, attend a meeting, get groceries or scan a restaurant menu — make a mental note of whether checkoff dollars supported the information or pork product you are seeking.

I'm pretty sure that checkoff-funded programs run broader than most producers realize. This became more apparent to me last March at the Pork Industry Forum during a report on retail and foodservice promotions. In several cases, marketing “partners” were acknowledged for kicking in matching funds to push pork.

During a break, I posed this question to a National Pork Board member: “Do you think most pork producers understand the amount of matching promotional dollars that are at stake if the checkoff program is discontinued?” His answer: “Probably not.”

Others agreed. Most pork producers don't realize that if they don't pony up some dollars for a major pork marketing campaign, retailers, marketing partners and foodservice providers will turn to chicken, beef or tofu. Last year, these partners matched your checkoff dollars nearly dollar for dollar in pork promotions. That's half of the roughly $2.5 million tallied on Pork Board's spreadsheets — and that ain't chicken feed.

Emphasizing Exports

In recent weeks, I also took a second look at other government and private business matching-fund programs.

On the export side, for example, funds from three entities are pooled under an umbrella organization — the U.S. Meat Export Federation (MEF). In 2001, that included:

  • Branches of the USDA kicked in $2.67 million targeted for foreign market development, market access programs and emerging markets;

  • Corn and soybean organizations added $1.32 million of their checkoff dollars; and

  • National Pork Board allocated $5.16 million pork checkoff dollars.

Each year, MEF puts together the “Unified Export Strategy,” which essentially lays out the export constraints affecting pork and beef and a strategy to deal with them.

The guardians of government-grant purse strings are influenced by two things — the level of producer (checkoff) dollars available and the effectiveness of past export initiatives.

The incentive for the corn and soybean folks to support pork export sales is simple: “They know that if they can build exports of pork, they are basically exporting corn and soybeans in the form of meat,” states John Cravens, the Pork Board's director of foreign market development.

If pork producers wouldn't or couldn't allocate money toward the MEF foreign trade efforts, it's unlikely the corn and soybean growers would ante up, nor would federal market-development dollars be budgeted.

Is that a big deal? As domestic meat consumption levels off, these export markets are increasingly important.

Supporting Science

Checkoff also provides base funding for the Pork Board's science and technology department, led by Beth Lautner, DVM. Their work indirectly supports efforts to sell more pork by focusing on pork quality, pork safety, swine health, animal welfare, and production research. These key areas position U.S. producers as reliable, top quality suppliers — a necessity in effective export market development.

Payback and matching funds for science and technology projects is more difficult to track because many are multi-year initiatives. For example, the next National Pork Quality Audit (last conducted in 1994) is a three-phase project that surveys packers and evaluates quality at plants and retail. Half of the funding for this audit is checkoff funded and half is provided by other meat industry stakeholders.

A new muscle-profiling study is characterizing the 25 major muscles of the ham and shoulder. Checkoff is providing the base funding, supplemented by packer and university contributions. Similar efforts in the beef industry “discovered” the infra spinatus muscle which was developed into the very popular “flat iron steak.” Hopefully, the muscle profiling work will identify premium pork cuts that will add value to the pork carcass.

Ongoing pork safety, genetics, swine health and production research are also solid checkoff investments in production technology.

In the end, the question of whether your 50¢/market hog contribution, give or take, provides a payback is yours to answer. Ask yourself: Who will do this work if the checkoff is taken away? Same time next year, we'll revisit this issue. Please do your homework.