RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Pork Checkoff Checked

On Nov. 29, 2000, poll watchers traveled to their local Farm Services Agency (FSA) offices to witness the counting of ballots cast for and against continuing the mandatory pork checkoff, a tax of $4.50 per $1,000 paid by producers on every hog they sell. The count had been a long time coming.

To get the ballot, organizations like the National Family Farm Coalition and its members in several states collected 19,000 signatures and sent them to USDA, the government agency that administers checkoff funds.

Pork checkoff money passed through USDA to the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC). Since the checkoff began in 1986, NPPC had become increasingly controlled by industry giants who sell increasingly large numbers of hogs. Predictably, checkoff money has benefited the corporations, like Cargill, Continental Grain, Murphy and Smithfield, by funding Big Pig research.

That research is how consumers have gotten grocery store pork that is increasingly processed -- injected with tenderizers, chopped, flavored, extruded, and shaped into pork-like shapes by machines, zapped with killer x-rays, from animals imprisoned, medicated, shipped from nursery to growing plant to slaughter and never allowed outdoors for their entire lives.

The checkoff was supposed to help farmers by increasing demand for pork, the nation's first choice meat until the 1950s. We ate pork for breakfast, lunch and dinner back then, but hogs, once the farmer's "mortgage lifter," lost value when fast food places kicked off the national burger craze.

NPPC brags that checkoff money has put pork on the menu at fast-food places and "changed consumer minds." According to NPPC, the patented McRib sandwich is "a direct result of checkoff promotion and research."

Trouble is, McRibs and the other fast-food pork come from the factory. Industry owns the patents and the machinery that extrudes meat into those miniature rib-like shapes, and corporations like Smithfield, Continental Grain, Seaboard, and Cargill also own the hogs. All the hogs--mothers, daddies, babies. The farmer, often working as a contractor, doesn't own the animals or any part of the breeding stock. The profit farmers once made and kept in their rural neighborhoods now goes to corporate C.E.O.s.

In 1986, the year checkoff began, there were more than 375,000 independent hog farmers in the USA. Today there are about 70,000. If any other sector of the economy laid off more than 20,000 workers per year for 15 years, it would be Wall Street Journal front page, column 1. According to the National Family Farm Coalition, the checkoff has paid $500 million to NPPC. For NPPC, today's checkoff take is $54 million per year.

Before calling a vote to repeal checkoff, USDA spent a year whining. They complained that they didn't know how to verify the signatures, whimpered they didn't know how to get ballots to farmers, grumbled they didn't know how to make their computers merge lists or send mail.

USDA stalling bought time for NPPC. First, NPPC sent glossy posters to feed stores announcing that farmers had benefited from checkoff. But the posters were illegally paid for by checkoff dollars which supposedly go to research. Farm groups protested and feed stores had to pitch the glossies.

Next NPPC built a war chest that corporate buddies financed to the millions, eventually raising $4.3 million by one estimate. They sent mailers to hog farmers explaining "the scoop on the pork checkoff" and insisting "Vote Yes." And, even though USDA rules required producers to obtain their own ballots rather than get them from a go-between, NPPC hired telemarketers to phone farmers, ask how they would vote, then offer to send a ballot if the voter was pro-checkoff. In his syndicated column, Alan Guebert reported that NPPC telemarketers even offered to send ballots to dead family members of hog farmers.

Opposed to NPPC's $4.3 million, family farm groups amassed $180,000, supplemented by lots of volunteer hours from farmers and supporters who don't want to see all the food in the world come from factories.

30,347 hog farmers voted, and when the votes were counted, family farmers won with 53% voting to end the program. According to the USDA rules, this is a mandate to end the checkoff within 30 days. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman of the Clinton administration announced, "the checkoff does not have the support of producers ... I am directing the USDA to terminate the program."

NPPC then demanded a review, which USDA conducted. NPPC allegations, such as charging that a producer voted in person in one county and absentee in another, or one producer brought in ballots for another, have been investigated by USDA's Inspector General and found untrue. Still, a federal judge has issued a restraining order against USDA efforts to carry out the wishes of the voters. USDA has said they won't defend in a case against NPPC, which could bring a coalition of farm groups and hog farmers into court against NPPC and USDA. Washington correspondent Jerry Hagstrom says that the Bush administration will "re-examine" the issue.

Our new president -- the great reconciliationist -- shouldn't want to get involved. The outgoing USDA administrator in charge of the vote, Kathleen Merrigan, warned Bush's Ag Secretary Ann Veneman that NPPC and the family farm groups are "so difficult to work with." Merrigan told Veneman not to let the issue dominate her first months as USDA. Truthfully, one wonders why NPPC doesn't simply cancel the old checkoff and inaugurate a new, voluntary program which can be supported by the same Big Pigs that donated so much to fight the vote. The Big Pigs have almost all the hogs anyway, so they could pay the same as they do now, and NPPC's income would just dip a little -- they'd just have to lay off an administrative assistant or two. The NPPC tactic of stalling, building war chests, and hiring lawyers is so disgusting that even farmers and consumers who don't have hogs are beginning to care, following through their interest with donations to family farm organizations.

Even friends of Industry, like Betsy Freese writing for Successful Farming magazine have advised NPPC to let it go. "With all the changes in the pork industry since 1988, the Pork Act was outdated," she says, counseling the checkoff boards of other commodities that they'd benefit by listening to their producers.

Consumers can help, of course, by knowing where your bacon and ham was raised. Independent, local brands are springing up in every state, and they are all proudly announcing the standards used by their producers. Patchwork Family Farms, in Missouri, requires that their hogs be raised with access to outside, with no hormones or regular use of antibiotics, and raised by independent family farmers.

Call Ann Veneman at 202-720-3631 and the White House at 202-456-1414 and tell them the vote was clear and the checkoff should be eliminated now. Let your representatives know. The checkoff has met its checkmate. The game's over.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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