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HSUS files lawsuit against Vilsack

FARGO, N.D. -- Some pork industry officials say a lawsuit filed by an animal welfare organization involving the purchase of a famous promotion slogan amounts to "bullying."...

FARGO, N.D. -- Some pork industry officials say a lawsuit filed by an animal welfare organization involving the purchase of a famous promotion slogan amounts to "bullying."

The Humane Society of the United States and an Iowa farmer are plaintiffs in a suit filed Sept. 24 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, against U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The HSUS, which claims 11 million members, says it was improper for the National Pork Board -- a research and promotion arm of the industry, and recipient of check-off dollars -- to pay $60 million to the National Pork Producers Council for permanent rights to the "Pork: The Other White Meat" slogan. The HSUS contends that USDA, which supervises the check-off program, should have rejected the expenditure.

The transaction occurred in 2006. The NPB was created in 1986. The slogan, "Pork: The Other White Meat" was created before that by the NPPC and launched in 1987. It was replaced as the main slogan in 2011, but not entirely retired, says Chris Novak, CEO of the National Pork Board.

HSUS says the NPB has an escape clause that allows it to stop making the $3 million annual payments but chooses not to exercise it. The lawsuit asks the court to stop the payments.

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HSUS notes Steve Murphy, who was NPPC's CEO in 2006, then wrote that he wouldn't accept a written appraisal of the slogan's value for the sale. The HSUS charges the decision was meant to keep it "sealed" and out of the "public domain."

HSUS is an animal welfare organization often at odds with animal agriculture. The farmer plaintiff, Harvey Dillenburg, is an independent pig farmer in Adair County, Iowa. He is not an NPPC member and was required to pay the check-off, but objected to the NPPC's lobbying efforts. The check-off is 40 cents for every $100 in value of hogs sold.

Inflated value?

Among other things, HSUS says the $60 million amount is "exorbitantly over-inflated." The group says the NPPC "charged pork producers twice" for it, by using check-off fees to create its value, and then to "pay for the value of that success." The slogan was replaced by "Pork: Be Inspired" in 2011, but still is used in certain situations, especially involving health care professionals.

NPB says the slogan purchase price was $35 million, but totaled $60 million when spread across 20 annual installments of $3 million each. HSUS says the NPPC has indicated the payment accounts for a third of its annual budgeted revenues.

Traditionally, farm commodity organizations are divided into two groups -- the check-off based research and promotion organization. The HSUS says these tax-like check-off funds were improperly funneled into lobbying purposes at the NPPC, which is a membership-based political lobbying entity.

No merit

Neil Dierks, NPPC's CEO, says his organization is studying the complaint, but it appears there is "no legal merit." He called it a "desperate attempt by the radical activist group to severely curtail animal agriculture and take away food choices." He says the HSUS in recent months has threatened NPPC with a Federal Trade Commission complaint, has filed notice of intent to sue a number of hog operators over "alleged emissions reporting violations" and has charged that the NPPC was responsible for the deaths of hogs in barn fires.

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The NPB conducted a survey last year that indicated 82 percent of pork producers are supportive of the organization's efforts. He says the NPPC deserved compensation for the creation of the "Other White Meat" slogan, and likened it to the purchase of a photograph or rights to a book.

The HSUS is one of the backers of a North Dakota initiated measure that would make certain animal cruelty violations a felony. Several North Dakota farm and livestock organizations oppose the measure, partly because of HSUS's involvement. Instead, they are pushing for legislative action, which measure proponents say repeatedly failed.

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