Byline: Joanna Ramey

WASHINGTON — A legal challenge is being planned to an Agriculture Department referendum creating an industry-funded promotion program for wool and other lamb products that was approved despite efforts by apparel and textile importers to block its passage.
In the Feb. 6 referendum, voted on by 19,801 apparel importers, sheepherders, meat packers and others dealing in lamb products, 54.1 percent favored creation of the program, and 45.9 percent opposed it. About 9,000 apparel and textile importers were eligible to vote, but it couldn’t be learned how many cast ballots.
Results of the vote were released Wednesday by the USDA.
Under terms of the sheep program, an estimated $5.8 million would be generated to promote wool and another $7.2 million for mutton, lanolin and other sheep by-products. The fund is similar to the program that raises $64.3 million each year to pitch cotton goods to the public.
Trevor Playford, North American director of the New Zealand Meat Producers’ Board, said his organization expects to participate in either an appeal to the USDA or a lawsuit, along with meat and wool importers from Australia and some U.S. opponents, including large sheepherders from Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota.
Playford said his group hasn’t decided on what grounds to base its challenge, but it’s likely to focus on what he says is the inequitable nature of the program. Essentially, the small-scale players in the importation and domestic sales of lamb products would derive most of the benefits from a program receiving a large part of its funds from large-scale players, he said.
Illustrating this point, Playford noted how the small-scale players in the industry had the largest turnout in the referendum. According to the USDA, those voting for the referendum accounted for 40 percent of the total lamb product industry; those against it accounted for 60 percent of the business.
While importers said they wouldn’t challenge the referendum, they do plan to endorse legal efforts being devised by some of the nation’s large sheepherders and importers of lamb and raw wool.
“This is just one more program where we’ve been tapped as a financial resource,” said Brenda Jacobs, trade counsel for the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel.
If the challenge doesn’t get in the way, assessments are expected to be levied on lamb products starting mid-year. For apparel and textile importers, the assessment would amount to 1 to 2 cents per pound of wool in a product. — Fairchild News Service

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