Pork Promotion Program:

Petition Validation Process Needs to Be Strengthened

RCED-00-274: Published: Sep 28, 2000. Publicly Released: Sep 28, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Agricultural Marketing Service's (AMS) efforts to validate a petition on whether to continue the Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Pork Promotion Program, focusing on: (1) the problems AMS encountered in its process to validate the pork petition and AMS' plans to improve the validation process; (2) factors that led to the USDA Secretary's decision to order the referendum; and (3) whether the USDA Secretary has the authority to order a referendum and whether USDA can use appropriated funds to pay its cost.

GAO noted that: (1) AMS' process to validate the pork petition was flawed in three key areas, according to GAO's analysis; (2) problems in any one of these areas would have raised questions about the integrity of the validation process; (3) AMS did not accurately estimate the population of pork producers; (4) it did not develop a reliable database of petitioner information as a basis for verifying petitioners' eligibility to sign a petition; (5) it employed a flawed survey methodology to verify the eligibility of the petitioners; (6) as a result, AMS could not determine with certainty whether 15 percent of eligible pork producers had signed the petition, which would require the USDA Secretary to hold a referendum on whether to continue the program; (7) although AMS has recognized that its validation process was flawed, it has not taken substantial actions to improve its process; (8) two primary factors led the Secretary of Agriculture to order a referendum; (9) he concluded that AMS' validation process was flawed; (10) consequently, the Secretary determined that it was impossible to ascertain the number of valid petitioners and that efforts to revalidate the petition would not result in any greater certainty; (11) second, the Secretary based his decision on his belief that check-off programs, including pork, should be subject to periodic referendums; (12) he strongly believed that pork producers should have the opportunity to vote on whether to continue the check-off program because the program is a mandatory assessment and the industry has changed dramatically since the last vote in 1988; (13) in GAO's view, the Secretary has the authority to order a pork referendum, but referendum expenses must be reimbursed from pork check-off funds, and appropriated funds may not be used to pay referendum expenses; (14) the Secretary interprets the Pork Promotion, Research, and Consumer Information Act of 1985 as granting him authority to conduct a referendum as a tool in deciding whether to terminate the pork check-off program; (15) GAO finds this interpretation to be a reasonable one; and (16) however, the Secretary may not pay for a referendum with appropriated funds because the act specifically states that AMS must be reimbursed for referendum expenses from pork check-off funds.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its statement of January 11, 2001 to GAO, USDA responded that it agreed with and planned to take action on our recommendation. In June 2001, AMS issued a solicitation to consulting firms to develop a uniform petition validation process for all of the agency's commodity promotion programs. According to the Deputy Administrator of AMS, the agency initiated this action based on a directive from the Secretary of Agriculture.

    Recommendation: To strengthen AMS' petition validation process, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator, AMS, to develop a uniform petition validation process for pork and all other check-off programs that are based on standard professional practices.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In November 2000, Congress authorized the Secretary in Public Law 106-472 to use USDA funds to pay all expenses associated with the vote.

    Recommendation: To ensure compliance with the Pork Promotion Act, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator, AMS, to obtain reimbursement from pork check-off funds to pay all referendum expenses.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture


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