National Pork Producers Council is demanding USDA defend its previously approved sale of NPPC’s “The Other White Meat” trademarked assets to the National Pork Board, but is concerned USDA has already thrown in the towel in a lawsuit contesting the sale.

That lawsuit, filed in federal court in 2012 by the Humane Society of the United States and joined by an Iowa farmer and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, alleges the sale represents a misappropriation of pork checkoff funding and seeks to rescind the sale.

The complaint alleges that the National Pork Board agreed to pay NPPC $60 million for the advertising slogan, effectively turning the money over for “use in programs intended to influence legislation and government policy.”

The District Court of D.C. dismissed the case for lack of standing in September 2013, but a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled the Iowa farmer does have standing and reinstated the case in August 2015.

USDA initially defended the sale and won the dismissal, but has now entered into settlement negotiations with HSUS, a move that has surprised and concerned pork producers, said Dave Warner, NPPC director of communications.

He said USDA is being evasive about the negotiations and other actions that lead NPPC to fear that a settlement with HSUS is already a done deal.

“We are concerned USDA has already thrown in the towel, the talks are done (with) a decision that won’t be good for pork producers,” he said.

NPPC tried to find out where USDA stands and if a settlement was reached, when NPPC representatives met with USDA’s Office of General Council March 23. It got no answers, he said.

USDA still has strong legal standing in the case, Warner said, because the merits of the case haven’t been argued.

That’s “why we are so perplexed and asked USDA ‘what is going on here.’ We really didn’t get a whole lot of answers,” he said.

Other actions by USDA also leave NPPC concerned and unclear on where USDA stands on the issue, he said.

At one time USDA said there were no settlement talks, but in December — two days after NPPC filed a notice to intervene in the case — USDA informed the court it was in settlement negotiations with HSUS, making it unnecessary for NPPC to intervene, and filed a motion to put the case on hold until May, he said.

USDA has requested an evaluation report on “The Other White Meat” slogan and pork chop logo from the Pork Board, with a May deadline. USDA said the review has nothing to do with the settlement, but the timing coincides with the time frame for the Pork Board to give a contractual one-year notice to terminate its payments to NPPC. If payments are terminated, the trademark ownership would revert back to NPPC, he said.

In addition, USDA approved every item in the Pork Board’s recent budget except its annual payment to NPPC for the purchase of the slogan and logo. That payment has been approved by USDA in every budget since the sale in 2006.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was questioned during a House Ag Committee hearing in late February as to why USDA has decided to negotiate. Vilsack replied the decision was made in concert with the pork industry, Warner said.

Pork producers object to any settlement, and NPPC delegates responded a week later by unanimously approving a resolution calling on USDA to uphold the sale, defend the checkoff in legal challenges and rely on the Pork Board for the management and execution of checkoff activities, he said.

The delegates also raised the issue of allowing a disgruntled, purported hog farmer to bring down an entire agreement, which would be a bad precedent for all checkoff programs, he said.

The slogan is no longer being used. But, all current promotional campaigns are derivatives of that program and its trademarks, and the Pork Board and state pork organizations use them in all promotions. If the sales agreement is rescinded, the Pork Board won’t be allowed to use them, he said.

USDA’s Office of General Council referred Capital Press to the Department of Justice, which has not yet responded. An attorney for HSUS will be available to Capital Press on Friday

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