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USDA moves to dismiss HSUS pork trademark lawsuit

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Pork producers say USDA’s motion is long overdue but still chastises the agency for entering into settlement talks with HSUS.

USDA filed a motion last week in U.S. District Court to dismiss a years-old lawsuit the Humane Society of the United States filed against the agency for approving the 2006 sale of the National Pork Producers Council’s “Other White Meat” trademarks to the National Pork Board.

HSUS — joined in the lawsuit by an Iowa farmer and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement — filed the lawsuit in 2012 alleging misappropriation of pork checkoff funding, claiming the trademarks were overvalued and seeking to have the $35 million sale rescinded.

In its motion, USDA argues the lawsuit lacks merit, the plaintiffs failed to establish standing or show they were harmed by the sale and the trademarks provided significant value to the pork industry — well above the sale price. The agency also argues the lawsuit is barred by the six-year statute of limitations.

“We’re certainly pleased that USDA has done this, but quite frankly it should have done it a long time ago,” said Dave Warner, NPPC director of communications.

USDA’s previous handling of the lawsuit, in which it entered into settlement talks with HSUS in Dec. 2015 before arguing the case, rankled pork producers. NPPC members responded by approving a resolution in March 2016 calling on USDA to uphold the sale and defend the checkoff, he said.

At that time, a spokesman for the Department of Justice told Capital Press the litigation had been stayed pending USDA’s review of the Pork Board’s contract for the purchase of the trademarks and that there were no ongoing settlement discussions with any party during USDA’s independent review.

The joint stipulation requesting the stay was filed in court Dec. 23, 2015, and granted Jan. 6, 2016, with USDA’s decision on its approval of the contract following the review due by the beginning of May 2016.

USDA initially defended the sale, filing a motion to dismiss in January 2013. The District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the case for lack of standing in September 2013, but in August 2015 a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled the Iowa farmer does have standing and reinstated the case.

The appeals court only ruled that the farmer had standing; the merits of the case hadn’t been argued when USDA entered into settlement talks, Warner said. “No one even knows if he’s a hog producer or paid into the checkoff.”

The first thing government lawyers should have done is argue that the plaintiffs don’t have standing. Rather than that happening, USDA entered into settlement talks, he said.

“Pork producers were ticked off,” he said.

The main argument by HSUS is that the Pork Board paid too much for the trademarks, yet USDA’s review found they are worth between $113 million and $132 million, nearly four times the purchase price, he said.

USDA filed the motion to dismiss on Jan. 5.

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