Sunday, November 07, 2010

Despite Dietary Guidelines, federal government promotes high-fat cheese through dairy checkoff

For many years, there has been a tension between the federal government's recommendations for a nutritious diet and the government's promotion of high-fat beef, pork, and cheese through the federal commodity checkoff programs.

For example, in 2005 U.S. Food Policy described the dairy checkoff program's cheese promotion efforts in collaboration with fast food restaurants.
According to USDA’s report to Congress, the Dairy Board’s campaign with the motto, "Ahh, The Power of Cheese," is targeted at "cheese lovers," with an emphasis on "cheese enhancers" and "cheese cravers." The "enhancers" use cheese in their cooking, while the "cravers" eat cheese straight on its own. The USDA report to Congress emphasizes the Dairy Board’s success with cheese promotions through fast food restaurants: "DMI also worked closely with top national restaurant chains, including Pizza Hut ® and Wendy's ®, to drive cheese volume and ensure that cheese was featured prominently in menu items. For example, Wendy's ® introduced two new sandwiches, the Wild Mountain Chicken sandwich and the Wild Mountain Bacon Cheeseburger, nationwide. Both included a slice of natural Colby-Jack cheese and a smoky Southwestern pepper sauce. These new menu items were developed through a partnership between DMI and Wendy's ® that tested consumer acceptance of these sandwiches in select test markets. "

To take the most recent example, last month (April, 2005) the Dairy Board began a collaboration with Pizza Hut to promote a 3-cheese stuffed crust pizza (Figure 5). This pizza features an exceptional amount of cheese. A single slice of the plain cheese version contains 35 percent of the federal government’s recommended daily value for saturated fat and 39 percent of the daily value for salt, based on a 2,000 calorie diet. The Dairy Board features this pizza on the front page of its website, with the address
The federal government's dietary guidelines promote a diet with more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, and more lowfat milk, while still maintaining a moderate total level of food energy.  By subtraction, the recommended diet includes less high-fat beef, pork, and cheese than Americans consume on average.

Michael Moss in the New York Times today provides a fascinating and thorough expose of the dairy checkoff program's role in marketing high-fat cheese:
Urged on by government warnings about saturated fat, Americans have been moving toward low-fat milk for decades, leaving a surplus of whole milk and milk fat. Yet the government, through Dairy Management, is engaged in an effort to find ways to get dairy back into Americans’ diets, primarily through cheese.

Americans now eat an average of 33 pounds of cheese a year, nearly triple the 1970 rate. Cheese has become the largest source of saturated fat; an ounce of many cheeses contains as much saturated fat as a glass of whole milk.

When Michelle Obama implored restaurateurs in September to help fight obesity, she cited the proliferation of cheeseburgers and macaroni and cheese. “I want to challenge every restaurant to offer healthy menu options,” she told the National Restaurant Association’s annual meeting.

But in a series of confidential agreements approved by agriculture secretaries in both the Bush and Obama administrations, Dairy Management has worked with restaurants to expand their menus with cheese-laden products.
There are many more great stories about checkoff programs that an enterprising journalist could explore (our checkoff tag in the side-bar has 38 items going back five years).  For background, I summarized some of the nutrition policy tensions in a 2005 article for the journal Obesity.  One remarkable story that U.S. Food Policy followed was the $60 million sale of the pork industry's "Other White Meat" slogan from the National Pork Producers Council to the federal government's pork checkoff program.  My questions about that sale have never yet been answered.

Update (3 pm): On this topic, see the Volokh Conspiracy and the extensive discussion in comments at the NYT site.  For a while today, this issue ranked at the top of the Google Blogsearch business page.


Amelia said...

It still amazes me that the USDA is in charge of making nutrition recommendations while also marketing agricultural products. It would be no more bizarre if Philip Morris was in charge of anti-smoking campaigns while also promoting cigarettes. I hope there is soon a movement to address this.

craig said...

I'm confused why everyone keeps saying this is the federal government doing this when it's actually the dairy industry doing it with dairy farmers money.

As an independent local food and sustainability blogger I called up Dairy Management and spoke with them about the program. This is what I found...

No doubt there are problems inherent in the checkoff system but the framing of this story as the federal government promoting cheese consumption is inaccurate. Isn't it more accurate to say the government supervises the activities of the dairy industry to promote their products? What am I missing?

Amelia said...

One of the big problems here is that checkoff programs primarily help large producers (most of whom are owned by even larger parent companies), not small farmers trying to earn a fair wage. So although it's not immoral for the dairy industry to market dairy products, the idea that these Dairy Management marketing programs are helping the hard-working family farmer in Vermont or Wisconsin is false. Just like with farm subsidies for corn, wheat, soy, etc, the checkoff money for dairy, pork, and beef is largely given to people who already have money, not the many struggling farmers in our country.

Also, just because the USDA only gives Dairy Management $5 million out of their $140 million annual budget, does not mean that this contribution should be ignored. It is in fact government money, and it's just plain weird that the same government body who tells us to drink skim milk is also marketing animal fat to us via a contribution to Dairy Management.

usfoodpolicy said...

Craig, don't let them trick you. The checkoff programs are fundamentally federal government programs, despite the fact that they told you otherwise. The board members are appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture. Every promotion campaign is approved by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service. If a farmer refuses to pay, the U.S. Department of Justice brings the case against him or her. The only reason the checkoff programs pass muster with the Supreme Court is that they baldly told the justices that they are from top to bottom federal government programs. Justice Scalia wrote the opinion, saying that he believed this claim.