Newsflash: Dairy Industry Wants You to Eat More Dairy - What's So Controversial About That?

The headlines have been blaring all over the internet since the New York Times reported, While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales. The story highlights the work of an organization called Dairy Management to promote extra cheese on Domino's Pizzas. Here's how the NY Times article describes their work:

Dairy Management, which has made cheese its cause, is not a private business consultant. It is a marketing creation of the United States Department of Agriculture — the same agency at the center of a federal anti-obesity drive that discourages over-consumption of some of the very foods Dairy Management is vigorously promoting.

So the story gets framed as the U.S. Government pushing cheese like a drug dealer while at the same time creating "Just Say No to Fatty Foods" initiatives. With the narrative framework in place it has been cast as yet another sensational example of big government hypocrisy and waste.

Huffington Post made it a top story and the message about this being a government plot evolved into headlines like, Uncle Sam Wants YOU to Eat More Cheese and Federal Government Helps Dominos Sell Pizzas, Uses Tax Dollars to Push Dairy Products.

While I have often been critical of large U.S. agricultural interests on this blog, in this case I think the story is misleading.

The biggest misunderstanding is that taxpayer dollars are behind this promotional campaign. The NYTimes article states clearly,

Dairy Management, whose annual budget approaches $140 million, is largely financed by a government-mandated fee on the dairy industry.

But the article then proceeds to muddy the waters with the very next sentence,

But it also receives several million dollars a year from the Agriculture Department, which appoints some of its board members, approves its marketing campaigns and major contracts and periodically reports to Congress on its work.

If you read the whole article it actually does a good job of reporting accurately that Dairy Management "received $5.3 million that year from the Agriculture Department to promote dairy sales overseas." But if you only read the first page it's easy to misunderstand, as some have, that U.S. tax dollars used to fund the USDA are being used to promote Domino's pizzas with extra cheese.

I spoke with a representative of Dairy Management Inc. this morning and she clarified that the U.S. Dairy Export Council, which is not involved in domestic marketing partnerships like the one with Domino's, received $5.3 million of its $20 million budget from Foreign Ag. Services, an arm of the USDA. Those are the funds referred to in the Times article.

But what about the staff from USDA that provide oversight of Dairy Management? The NYTimes article hints that tax dollars that pay for employees of the USDA are being used to support Dairy Management. According to the representative of Dairy Management, the USDA does provide oversight of their programs as mandated by law, but Dairy Management reimburses the government for the costs of this oversight. I was also told that USDA employees do not sit on the board of Dairy Management, but do attend board meetings in their oversight capacity.

The other major misunderstanding is that somehow the government is running this program or "pushing" for cheesier pizzas. Dairy Management and its board of 80 dairy farmers are the ones who run the program and they are the ones who pay for it.

At the behest of the dairy industry, a law was passed in 1983 known as the Dairy Production Stabilization Act of 1983.

It, therefore, is declared to be the policy of Congress that it is in the public interest to authorize the establishment, through the exercise of the powers provided herein, of an orderly procedure for financing (through assessments on all milk produced in the United States for commercial use and on imported dairy products) and carrying out a coordinated program of promotion designed to strengthen the dairy industry's position in the marketplace and to maintain and expand domestic and foreign markets and uses for fluid milk and dairy products.

This established what is known as the Dairy Checkoff. Every commercial producer of dairy in the U.S. is required by law to pay a fee per 100 pounds of product. For example, Idaho dairy farmers pay a total of 16 cents per 100 lbs of milk. Of that, 10 cents stays in Idaho to fund a state version of Dairy Management called United Dairymen of Idaho, 1 cent funds the Idaho Dairymen's Association that lobbies for dairy interests, and 5 cents goes to Dairy Management for national programs.

With the Domino's Legends Pizza promotion, Dairy Management set up the marketing campaign nationally, and in Idaho's case, the United Dairymen of Idaho Communications Rep. did radio interviews and ran statewide radio advertisements. All of this paid for by dairy farmers, not tax-payers. Their activities are regulated by the government according to the 1983 law to ensure they are using the funds legally, but it's disingenuous to suggest then that the government is therefore promoting fatty fast foods and dishonest to imply that taxpayer dollars are being used for such programs.

I'm not a big fan of promoting fast foods to consumers, but I'm not sure why it's controversial that dairy farmers are paying for programs to promote the sale of their products. It's like saying it's scandalous that Starbucks wants consumers to drink more coffee.

Behind the faux controversy of tax-payer funded promotions for cheese pizza is a very real controversy about the juxtaposition of Dairy Management's promotional work and the USDA initiatives promoting a healthy diet. Marion Nestle and her Food Politics blog is a good place to start in getting up to speed on this ongoing debate. But let's not give dairy farmers a hard time for wanting us to eat more cheese.  They already have enough challenges.