Friday, May 11, 2007

The federal government's checkoff programs will cease their dairy weight-loss campaign in response to consumer petition

USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service has agreed to end the dairy weight-loss advertising campaign sponsored by the federal government's fluid milk and dairy checkoff programs, according to a letter that the Federal Trade Commission sent this month to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

According to Kim Severson's article in the New York Times today:
A national advertising campaign that associates dairy products with weight loss will be curtailed because research does not support the claim, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

The advertisements, conceived by the promotional arm of the dairy industry and overseen by the Agriculture Department, feature slogans like “Milk your diet. Lose weight!” and suggest that three servings of dairy products a day can help people be slim....

The assertion that there is a link between weight loss and dairy consumption has long been contested by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, an advocacy and research group that promotes a diet free of animal products.

The group petitioned the F.T.C. in 2005 to argue that the advertisements were misleading. In a May 3 letter to the group, Lydia Parnes, director of the agency’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said Agriculture Department representatives and milk producers and processors had agreed to change the advertisements and related marketing materials “until further research provides stronger, more conclusive evidence of an association between dairy consumption and weight loss.”
The advertisements have frequently included nutrition science howlers, such as the print ad below, which says, "studies show that people who get enough calcium in their diet weigh less than those who don't." Setting aside its general poor taste, I use this ad in my statistics class as an archetypal example of the need to control for confounding variables (in this case soda consumption, which is positively associated with weight and negatively associated with milk consumption).

According to the FTC's letter (.pdf), addressed to the PCRM's Neal Barnard, USDA promised "that any future advertising and marketing that discusses the role of dairy and weight management will be limited to messages that are consistent with the current USDA/HHS Guidelines." This is a major policy change. I have been following the tension between the checkoff advertising messages and the dietary guidelines closely for several years (see articles here and here and many posts in U.S. food policy), and have been surprised that USDA was not pressured to modify its checkoff campaigns sooner.

Today's news may have implications for the future of the checkoff programs more broadly. If the federal government begins to require that checkoff campaigns be consistent with the Dietary Guidelines, the rank and file among commodity producers may begin to question more strongly the merit of administering their advertising through federal checkoff programs. For the checkoff programs, every campaign must be approved by USDA as "government speech," a requirement that a purely private sector advertising program would not have to meet.

[I first saw today's news at CalorieLab.]

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