Monday, April 03, 2006

Feds approve Quiznos Prime Rib promotion; nutrition facts guarded as secret

The federal government is advertising a new food product. No, it's not fruits or vegetables. Not whole grains. Not lowfat milk.

The federal government in December approved a massive campaign of television advertisements and other marketing to promote ...
... the Quiznos Prime Rib Sub.
See the luscious television advertisements, and notice the "beef check logo" indicating endorsement of the message by the Beef Board and the federal government.

The advertising campaign, which runs from February through May this year, is a partnership between Quiznos and the Cattlemen's Beef Promotion and Research Board, a semi-governmental program to promote beef demand. The Beef Board is established by Congress, overseen by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, and funded through $46 million per year in mandatory assessments -- taxes -- collected from beef producers under federal government authority. The Beef Board is one of several meat and dairy commodity "checkoff" programs, which dwarf federal support promoting fruits, vegetables, or the Dietary Guidelines.

Neither Quiznos nor the Beef Board nor USDA would provide the nutrition facts information for the Prime Rib sub in response to requests from U.S. Food Policy. A press release from the Beef Board gives the flavor of the product: "The Quiznos Prime Rib Sub is a double portion of tender prime rib, piled high with melted mozzarella cheese and sauted onions, and then topped with a mild peppercorn sauce." The Impulsive Buy website described the product as "an orgy of meat" (and provided a grotesque photograph).

The beef checkoff program has been controversial with beef producers, some of whom objected to the tax and sued in federal court, arguing that the program violated their First Amendment rights by forcing them to support advertising campaigns with which they disagree. I described much of this controversy in a working paper (.pdf). In a case that was decided by the Supreme Court in May, 2005, the federal government responded that these advertising campaigns represent the government's own "government speech." In the majority opinion of the Supreme Court (.pdf), Justin Antonin Scalia explained:
The message of the promotional campaigns is effectively controlled by the Federal Government itself. The message set out in the beef promotions is from beginning to end the message established by the Federal Government.
In dissent (.pdf), Justice David Souter pointed out that many consumers may not even recognize that the government has endorsed the beef advertisements: "[A] compelled subsidy should not be justifiable by [government] speech unless the government must put that speech forward as its own."

All Beef Board promotions must be approved by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service. The Quiznos Prime Rib promotion was approved in a December 27 letter (.pdf) from Barry Carpenter, Deputy Administrator of the Livestock and Feed Program within AMS. Carpenter wrote to the Beef Board: "We have reviewed and concur with your decision to approve this promotional partnership."

As a consumer, you can recognize which advertisements were approved and endorsed by the federal government by the appearance of the "beef check logo."

The federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans are supposed to be the government's "one voice" on nutrition communication. The guidelines promote increased consumption of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and lowfat milk, within a balanced diet whose overall calories have been reduced. By subtraction, one might expect the federal government to go easy on promoting caloric sodas, sugary desserts, and high-fat meat and dairy products. It might seem difficult to reconcile the Dietary Guidelines with the Quiznos promotion.

In response to an email query about whether the Quiznos promotion was reviewed for consistency with the Dietary Guidelines, Kenneth Payne of AMS responded, "We are not required to do this by law."

Payne's email stated,
Again, as part of USDA's oversight, we are required to review such promotions to ensure that they comply with the Beef Promotion and Research Act and the Beef Promotion and Research Order. The program's goal is designed to strengthen the position of beef in the marketplace and to maintain and expand domestic and foreign markets and uses for beef and beef products. Ultimately, it is the consumers' choice to make a commodity part of a healthy and well-balanced diet. The Board promotes beef to give the consumer options to include beef as part of a healthy and well balanced diet.
The goal of the Beef Board's Quiznos promotion is to increase beef sales and support the purchase of 2.0 million "incremental pounds of Prime Rib/Beef." The Beef Board sought and received USDA approval to spend $100,000 of its own money in order to leverage a much larger sum (redacted in the copy of the letter U.S. Food Policy received from USDA) of advertising money from Quiznos. According to Payne, "In fiscal year 2005, the Beef Checkoff Program invested $475,000 in national partnerships [with restaurants], while the partners invested $27 million, or a leveraged ratio of 56:1 for Checkoff dollars invested. The total incremental pounds of beef sold during these promotions were 3,254,000."

The Beef Board's press release reported that the Prime Rib promotion was inspired by the success of the Steakhouse Beef Dip promotion discussed earlier in this weblog:
A successful cooperative promotion between Quiznos and the Beef Checkoff Program in 2004 encouraged Quiznos and beef checkoff leaders to conduct the current promotion, according to Laurie Bryant, chairman of the Joint Foodservice Committee. That promotion, for the Steakhouse Beef Dip Sub, shattered projections for sales. As a result of its success, the company added the sandwich as a permanent menu item. “

"We a’re thrilled to be working with Quiznos again," according to Bryant, a member of the Cattlemen'’s Beef Board. "Our relationship with the Quiznos marketing team is excellent, and our track record with this company and others we have partnered with has proven the value of these types of cooperative promotions."
U.S. Food Policy sought comment from the public relations staff at the Beef Board by telephone and email, and requested nutrition facts from Quiznos, to no avail.