How Can the USDA Simultaneously Be Pro-Cheese and Anti-Fat?

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Thanks to the U.S. government’s long-standing campaign against saturated fat, many Americans have embraced low-fat and nonfat milk and yogurt. But with 60 million gallons of raw milk produced every day, what happens to all that leftover whole milk and extracted dairy fat? Apparently, it goes right into our gullets anyway via cheese (think Pizza Hut’s Cheesy Bites or Burger King’s Cheesy Angus Bacon), a New York Times investigation reveals.

A nonprofit organization called Dairy Management Inc. was created by the government in 1995 primarily to increase cheese sales to restaurants and the public. It teamed up with Domino’s Pizza to create a new pizza with 40% more cheese, the Times’ Michael Moss reports, and even created and funded a $12 million ad campaign. Yet, at the same time, the government is responsible for setting dietary guidelines for the American public, guidelines that call for reductions in saturated fat — currently Americans get most of their saturated fat from cheese. (More on 5 Ways to Get Oatmeal in Your Diet, Deliciously).

Americans now consume an average 33 lbs. of cheese per year — three times the amount they did in 1970 — according to Moss, and while the government has been imploring people to cut the fat from their diets, he found that through confidential agreements with the government, Dairy Management has colluded with restaurants to add cheese-heavy products to their menus. Moss explains how Dairy Management works:

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

The organization’s activities, revealed through interviews and records, provide a stark example of inherent conflicts in the Agriculture Department’s historical roles as both marketer of agriculture products and America’s nutrition police.

In one instance, Dairy Management spent millions of dollars on research to support a national advertising campaign promoting the notion that people could lose weight by consuming more dairy products, records and interviews show. The campaign went on for four years, ending in 2007, even though other researchers — one paid by Dairy Management itself — found no such weight-loss benefits.

Dairy Management is also largely credited with getting milk back into the diets of school-aged children through its popular “Got Milk?” campaign. (More on Figuring Out Food Labels).

With a budget that is nearly 20 times that of the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, another USDA partner that is tasked with actually promoting low-fat, high-fiber eating, it’s clear who wins out. Dairy Management is the largest of the USDA’s 18 programs and its most effective in terms of sales.

For more, see the full New York Times investigation here.

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