Saturday, May 14, 2005

Federal Communication About Obesity in the Dietary Guidelines and Checkoff Programs: Introduction

The Dietary Guidelines say one thing, and the checkoff program advertising says another. Here is the introduction to my recent working paper (comments on this draft are welcome!):

The most striking feature of the revised Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released this past January, is the publication’s increased emphasis on obesity prevention: "To reverse the trend toward obesity, most Americans need to eat fewer calories, be more active, and make wiser food choices" (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2005). The Dietary Guidelines, which are released every 5 years and are now in their sixth edition, are intended as the Federal Government’s most authoritative summary of the state of nutrition science and the basis for all Federal communication with consumers on nutrition topics.

The pronounced focus on obesity prevention is not surprising, because rates of overweight and obesity have increased sharply in recent decades. One could quote any number of reports on these trends, but this chapter focuses on federal government statements, to give a sense of the prevailing view among federal policy-makers. In 2001, The Surgeon General’s Call To Action To Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity warned that these health conditions have become an epidemic (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001). The Surgeon General estimated that, as of 1999, 61 percent of U.S. adults were overweight or obese. Thirteen percent of children and adolescents were overweight. The number of overweight children had doubled, and the number of overweight adolescents had almost tripled, since 1980. "We already are seeing tragic results from these trends," the Surgeon General said.

For most Americans, the new Dietary Guidelines recommend increased consumption of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, fish, and low-fat dairy products, within a balanced diet whose total calories have nevertheless been moderately reduced. By subtraction, the reader can recognize that the Guidelines encourage a diet with lower average amounts of some combination of foods from other categories, such as added sugars, high-fat snacks and desserts, meat, and high-fat dairy products.

Nevertheless, the best-known and best-funded federally sponsored consumer communications promote increased total consumption of beef, pork, and dairy products, including calorically dense foods such as bacon cheeseburgers, barbeque pork ribs, pizza, and butter. These communications are sponsored by the federal government’s commodity promotion programs, known as "checkoff" programs. The programs are established by Congress, approved by a majority of the commodity’s producers, managed jointly by a producer board and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and funded through a tax on the producers. The federal government enforces the collection of hundreds of millions of dollars each year in mandatory assessments, approves the advertising and marketing programs, and defends checkoff communication as the federal government’s own message -- in legal jargon, as its own "government speech" (Becker, 2004). Federal support for promoting fruit and vegetables is small by comparison (Produce for Better Health Foundation, 2004; M&R Strategic Services, 2002).

The leading checkoff advertising campaigns include: "Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner," "Ahh, the Power of Cheese," "Pork. The Other White Meat," "Got Milk?," and the "Milk Mustache" campaign. These campaigns are so familiar that many readers will recognize the slogans immediately and be surprised only to hear that they are federally sponsored. They are.

The working paper will be revised later this summer as a chapter in a volume from a workshop on obesity, business, and public policy, which was held in connection with the release of the University of Baltimore's obesity report card. I am also posting excerpts about the economic justification for federal government intervention to promote beef, pork, and cheese, and about the nutrition content of the checkoff advertising.

1 comment:

David Skul said...
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