Check Meat

Historian Sarah Milov has the story of of how the government organizations that promote American meat products — even when livestock farmers aren’t interested.


**Correction: In the original broadcast of our segment about how slogans like ‘pork, the other white meat’ came to be, we mention that pig farmers were obliged to pay a ‘check off’ of 45 cents. But that’s 45 cents per hundred dollars of hog sold — not per pound, as we stated on air. We regret the error.

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PETER: If you watch television in the early 1990s, it’s a safe bet that at some point you saw these two commercials.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Pork, the other white meat.

MALE SPEAKER: Beef, it’s what’s for dinner.

PETER: Sitting there on the couch, you probably did not realize the government had a hand in these slogans. They were the result of something called a check off.

BRIAN: A check off is when the government mandates agricultural producers to pay a fee on everything they produce. The money goes to a board of industry leaders and government appointees that put the cash towards research and marketing. It all goes towards the goal of boosting sales. Remember those singing California Raisins, the Got Milk campaign, or the Incredible Edible Egg? All paid for with check off. Now, check offs are very much worth the cost for industrial farmers who produce generic goods on a bulk scale. But for the small farmers who are just scraping by, or those who are specializing in a product that doesn’t apply to a slogan, it’s a raw deal.

SARAH MILOV: Pork is not actually the other white meat for hog raisers who, say, raise hogs that produce bacon.

BRIAN: This is Sara Milov, a historian at the University of Virginia. She told me that bacon producers still paid a fee, $0.45 for every $100 of hogs sold, to the board that brought us the Other White Meat campaign. So in the late 1990s, a group of smaller pork producers fought back against their industry board, the pork council.

SARAH MILOV: All check offs contain basically a self destruct provision. Whereby, if enough producers get together and present a petition to the Secretary of Agriculture, the Secretary of Agriculture can call a referendum, to take a nationwide vote on whether or not producers want to continue the program. So, in the late 1990s, dissident hog producers do this. The pork council hired a DC based firm, whose other clients included Philip Morris, to basically see what these producers were up to. And one of the worst epithets you could call a farmer in rural America is an activist. And so, there was a million dollar campaign against this coalition of farmers– smaller scale farmers– calling them animal welfare activists in the press.

BRIAN: Where’d the million dollars come from? I hope it wasn’t check off money.

SARAH MILOV: It was absolutely grower check off money. So in some instances, the hog producers had provided the funds that were being used to defeat them. Now, in spite of a million dollar campaign to defeat the dissident farmers, the results of that referendum are astounding in that 53% of producers vote against the check off system. Now, as these results come to light, we have a new administration. Admits that turnover, the results of the referendum are essentially thrown out in a deal that the new secretary of agriculture, Ann Veneman, cuts with the pork producers council.

BRIAN: Small meat producers ended up suing the federal government in cases that went all the way to the Supreme Court in 2005.

SARAH MILOV: Supporters of the check off, by which we primarily mean, the federal government and lawyers for the USDA who are defending the pork act and the beef act, invent a new type of argument justifying the check off. Their argument is that, anything that the check off produces; Beef, It’s What’s For Dinner, or Pork, The Other White Meat, is, in fact, government speech.

BRIAN: So what does that mean for the decision? So what if it’s government speech?

SARAH MILOV: Well, the argument proffered by opponents of the check off was that, they shouldn’t have to pay into the system because the speech that was being promoted, Pork, The Other White Meat, was in violation of their first amendment rights.

BRIAN: I see. So it was their free speech that was being interfered with, and so the decision says, it’s not your speech– this is government speech, not your speech.

SARAH MILOV: Right. So if we viewed the speech as private speech that is collectively funded, we might think that growers would have a claim to argue, hey, I don’t want to pay this because it’s an opportunity cost for me to engage in this type of speech instead of what I’d really like to say, which is by Triple H Ranch Angus Beef, right? But, if the speech is not that of a private individual, if it’s not that of an individual grower, it’s a speech of the government, there is no First Amendment claim that can be made against the check off.

BRIAN: And I gather you think the government shouldn’t be in the business of telling us to eat beef.

SARAH MILOV: I think that what check offs point up is the ambiguity of an agency like the USDA. The USDA exists and effectively promotes the interests of certain agricultural producers. The USDA is also the agency responsible for codifying and promoting federal nutrition guidelines. In the case of check offs, these two are very much at odds.

BRIAN: And just out of curiosity, how effective was Beef, It’s What’s For Dinner or Pork, The Other White Meat?

SARAH MILOV: Well, agricultural economists study this question very intensively. And the results are basically that, for each check off dollar spent, the industry does see a pretty good return on its investment. However, that doesn’t mean that all producers are receiving equal benefits from these programs. Hundreds of thousands of hog farmers were unable to survive in the industry, many of them blamed the onerous taxation of the check off, which itself represented the industrialization of hog farming.

BRIAN: So you’re saying it actually helped the consolidation of the industry?

SARAH MILOV: Yes. And what you see is the proliferation of check offs in an era in which agriculture is consolidating and more and more producers are going bust and exiting farming.


BRIAN: Sarah Milov is a historian at the University of Virginia.