I’ve learned this week, due to some great reporting by Michael Moss for the New York Times, there is a marketing group called Dairy Management that’s responsible for promoting dairy to the American public and for overseas export. This organization is a subset of the US Department of Agriculture, an agency also tasked with promoting nutritional responsibility, presenting an obvious conflict of interest between the two groups. Specifically, Dairy Management promotes cheese consumption and works with major national brands to increase the amount used in their products.
So why the conflicting goals between different branches of the USDA, and how is this allowed? The NY Times piece says, the USDA leaves it up to Dairy Management to decide how to “bolster farmers and rural economies” and isn’t in the business of controlling how this occurs. And according to a story on NPR, the USDA is OK with promoting cheese consumption in particular because Americans need the calcium, especially as they”re drinking less milk. Still, I’m not sure this fully explains the dichotomy.
Marion Nestle, author of the book Food Politics and this recent blog entry says, “So why is USDA in bed with dairy lobbying groups? That’s its job. From its beginnings in the 1860s, USDA’s role was to promote U.S. agricultural production and sales, with the full support of what was then a largely agricultural Congress. Only in the 1970s, did USDA pick up all those pesky food assistance programs and capture the “lead federal agency” role in providing dietary advice to the public.”
Interestingly, the side of the USDA responsible for nutrition policy is under funded compared to Dairy Management, the side that’s pushing cheese. According to this Boston Globe piece, “While the USDA budgets $6.5 million to promote nutrition policy, Dairy Management had more than $140 million to play with last year, mostly through government fees on the dairy industry, but also with $5.3 million from USDA itself to promote overseas exports.”
Just like many other things the USDA promotes, I take issue with our government endorsing large scale animal agriculture, and thus animal cruelty. However, in this case I find it even more reprehensible that taxpayers are funding even a portion of the budget for a group whose sole job is to promote cheese consumption. It’s true that the majority of the work done by Dairy Management group is paid by the dairy industry itself. However, we’re still on the line for over $5 million dollars, and that’s in addition to the collective millions US dairy farmers receive in government subsidies every year.
While we hear again and again how America is in the throws of an obesity epidemic, here we have a government group whose job is to get even more cheese into our food supply. Even if you don’t share my ethical concerns about the dairy industry, it’s not hard to see why this might be an issue. This increase in cheese consumption means hundreds and thousands of extra calories for American consumers, as well as an increased intake of sodium and fat. Americans take in an average of 33 pounds of cheese a year now, and Dairy Management hopes this will increase. Thankfully, the Center for Nutritional Policy and Promotion is not singing the same tune.
If there was ever a government program that deserves to be cut, it’s Dairy Management. There is no legitimate reason to continue funding this group with taxpayer dollars. I can only hope lawmakers take note.
P.S. – When going vegan, cheese was one of the harder things for me to give up. I hear the same thing again and again from other vegetarians; I just can’t give up cheese. Until recently, there weren’t very many good cheese substitutes. Now, thanks to Daiya and other brands, it’s much easier to replace cow milk based cheese with something less cruel that also tastes good.