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The dirty secret behind dairy junk foods

Industry and government work together to promote everything from fast-food pizza to sugary milk in schools

July 2, 2014 12:00AM ET

People often ask me, “How does lobbying work?” Last week it was with fat and sugar, when the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) hosted its 32nd annual Capitol Hill Ice Cream Party. Some 6,000 bowls of ice cream were served up to Sen. Tom Harkin, Reps. Pete Sessions, Robert Aderholt, Jeff Denham, John Shimkus, Ron Kind and Lamar Smith, among others, according to Politico.

Dairy lobbyists are ever present in Washington, and their efforts usually pay off. For example, last year when the IDFA implored the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to give dairy foods a pass in the new snack food guidelines for schools, the agency capitulated, opening school doors to even more junk food, such as YoCrunch Lowfat Yogurt with M&Ms.

This is just one of many examples I uncovered in a report I published last month, “Whitewashed: How Industry and Government Promote Dairy Junk Foods” (PDF). The dairy industry, propped up by government, has convinced us of the health benefits of milk and other dairy products. The assumption that eating dairy is essential to the diet has obstructed our ability to criticize federal government support for unhealthy dairy products, of which there are many.

One of the most important forms of government support is the federally mandated collection of industry fees for checkoff programs that promote milk and dairy.

According to the USDA, checkoff programs use industry funds “to increase the success of the businesses and farmers within their industry.” The idea is to pool resources in an agricultural sector to gain greater access to research and marketing.

Checkoff money is supposed to be used for generic marketing activities that promote dairy products and consumption. But in actuality the program gives a huge boost to leading fast food chains. For example, McDonald’s has six employees at its corporate headquarters who are dedicated to the dairy checkoff program and work to ensure that dairy plays an important role in McDonald’s product development. The program helped Taco Bell introduce its double steak quesadillas and cheese shreds, which resulted in a 4 percent increase in the chain’s dairy sales. It helped Pizza Hut develop its 3-Cheese Stuffed Crust Pizza and the Summer of Cheese ad campaign. Domino’s benefited from a $35 million partnership with the program, which resulted in the company’s using more cheese, with other pizza makers following its lead. Domino’s Smart Slice program brought its pizza to more than 2,000 schools in 2011, with help from — you guessed it — the checkoff program.

Does it make sense for the federal government to tell Americans to avoid foods high in salt, sugar and saturated fat while engaging in the promotion of those foods?

Schools are especially vulnerable to dairy industry influence. With the recent controversy over the sugar content of what the industry euphemistically calls flavored milk, marketers are desperate to maintain this lucrative market and captive audience. The USDA-supported milk checkoff program (fluid milk has a checkoff program separate from dairy products such as cheese and ice cream) promotes campaigns — such as Chocolate Milk Has Muscle and Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk — that tout the nutritional benefits of flavored milk. Milk checkoff educational materials and other forms of industry pressure have even been used to change the minds of some school officials who wanted to remove flavored milk.

Both the industry and government defend the dairy checkoff program by saying it’s paid for by farmers. While technically true, the federal government oversees and approves almost every aspect of the program. Far from being just a privately funded program, USDA employees attend checkoff meetings, monitor activities and are responsible for evaluation of the programs. The U.S. Supreme Court has even upheld the legality of the checkoff programs as “government speech,” finding that “the message ... is controlled by the federal government.”

Ironically, these funds are directly used to promote junk foods, which contribute to the diseases the federal government is allegedly trying to prevent. As Kiera Butler of Mother Jones points out in her recent coverage of my report, the USDA’s dairy checkoff program is in direct conflict with several federal nutritional tenets. For example, while the USDA says to “avoid oversized portions,” its checkoff program supports Taco Bell’s Cantina Double Steak Quesadilla, which has 750 calories and 29 grams of fat. The USDA also wisely recommends drinking beverages “without added sugars.” But its dairy checkoff program helped McDonald’s develop its McCafé Frappé Mocha, with 450 calories and an incredible 57 grams of sugar accounting for about half those calories. (The American Heart Association recommends (PDF) no more than 100 calories from added sugars per day for women and 150 for men.)

As a time when the nation is suffering from an epidemic of chronic disease due to poor diet, does it make sense for the federal government to tell Americans to avoid foods high in salt, sugar and saturated fat while engaging in the promotion of those foods? The federal government should stop mandating industry fees that undermine public health and end the dairy checkoff program.

Parke Wilde, a professor and food economist at Tufts University puts it this way: “The meat and dairy industries can do what they like with their own money. The public power of taxation should be used for the public good.” He also calls on the government to stop undermining public health, writing that checkoff messaging “should serve our stated public-health goals at a time when health care costs are threatening to bankrupt the government.”

A USDA representative told Mother Jones that “any changes in USDA’s authority over these programs would have to come from Congress.” Great idea. Maybe our representatives can get to work on that, right after they finish their ice cream.

Michele Simon is a public health lawyer, the president of Eat Drink Politics, the author of “Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back” and an attorney with Foscolo and Handel, the food law firm.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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