KANSAS CITY (B)--Not more than a few days into the referendum to retain or dismantle the mandatory U.S. pork checkoff, the combatants already are taking jabs at one another by hurling accusations of untruths and mishandling of checkoff dollars.

Again, checkoff opponents requested the U.S. Department of Agriculture intervene, leaving backers of the program to respond by "setting the record straight." Voting began Aug. 18 and will end Sept. 21.

The annual checkoff budget averages about $50 million and is funded by U.S. pork producers and importers to support industry activities. But, the system was challenged by disenchanted swine producers two years ago in the wake of low hog prices.

Campaign for Family Farms, a coalition of rural farm groups, brought the checkoff into question after swine prices briefly sank below $10.00 per cwt in the fall of 1998. Hogs are currently selling profitably in the low to mid-$40s. The recent skirmish was ignited following charges from checkoff opponents that supporters of the program misused checkoff dollars to sway voters.

USDA's Agriculture Marketing Services has oversight over the program and the referendum rules that stipulate federal checkoff dollars cannot be used to pursue producers to vote for or against the program.

In a statement released Aug. 22, CFF cited at least two incidents they said indicated the National Pork Producers Council, staunch proponents of the program, misappropriated checkoff funds.

CFF alleged NPPC spent $12,000 of the program's money to buy radio airtime in Colorado to promote benefits of the system, and charged the council violated federal rules by using checkoff money to fund research that asked how producers intend to vote in the referendum.

The pork council, which represents about 85,000 U.S. pork producer members and was contracted to carry out the program's goals of consumer education, industry research and pork promotion, labeled CFF's allegations "blatant half-truths" and blasted the group for "misleading producers."

NPPC's co-chair of the Vote Yes Task Force, Karl Johnson, explained in a release that the radio spots were approved by USDA and paid for by Colorado Pork Producers Council's state checkoff funds.

Johnson also said the ongoing research in question is being conducted by Louisiana State University and designed to identify producer member needs and determine the direction of producer education programs.

According to Johnson, NPPC had no input into how the study was structured, and checkoff funds were only allocated for the survey's printing and mailing costs. The research results are not expected to be made available until August 2001, which will not have an impact on the outcome of the referendum, he added.

In early August, pork checkoff program detractors asked USDA Secretary Dan Glickman to reverse an AMS decision allowing referendum absentee ballot requests to come from third parties, which superseded a previously published rule that ballots could only be obtained by producers themselves.

CFF members are now calling on AMS to impose an immediate moratorium that would suspend further checkoff spending until the final results of the referendum have been released.

AMS declined comment on Family Farm members' latest allegations or suggestions for a moratorium on checkoff spending.

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