A New Food Demon: Big Cheese

After reading a story in the New York Times, people all over the country assumed taxpayer money was being used to fatten Americans on cheese. It isn't. This episode is another example of how we demonize particular foods.

Share This:

Thanks to a misleading story in the New York Times, members of the national press are in heat about what they consider an outrageous use of taxpayer money to promote cheese. 

For example…

Food writer and journalism professor Michael Pollan tweets that “our tax dollars (are) at work promoting Domino’s pizza.”

Kerry Trueman (co-founder of EatingLiberally.org) states on the liberal Huffington Post that Domino’s Pizza is selling gobs of cheese with the help of a “government handout.” 

The Atlantic says the “government wants to fatten you up with cheese.” Paul Waldman at The American Prospect writes a government agency uses “taxpayer funds” — “your tax dollars” — to promote double melt cheeseburgers.  Matt Yglesias writes a headline saying “Tax Dollars Going to Subsidize Cheesier Dominoes (sic) Pizzas,” adding that this is the kind of “government spending…we could entirely do without.”

All these writers are wrong. There is no government money being used to promote cheese in the U.S. (Here is one blogger who knew better.) 

Everyone may be forgiven for assuming taxpayer money was being used to promote cheese because that is exactly what the Times implied in its lead story Sunday. The story was written by Michael Moss and it was headlined “While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales.”

 The story became an instant sensation — the “story of the month” according to one writer on Politico. It was the most emailed, most blogged, most talked about piece in the Times for days after it appeared.

The story caught on because it led readers (and quite a few journalists) to believe that the U.S. Department of Agriculture spent your money to promote unhealthy concoctions containing bushel baskets of cheese. 

That is not what Moss’s story really said. What he wrote was a story about a common kind of agricultural promotion. Maybe the cheese scheme has been more successful than others. The story doesn’t say. There is evidence that the cheese promotion really has had little effect on a long-term increase in cheese consumption that began decades before any money was spent to promote the dairy product, but Moss doesn’t supply this data.

Really, the headline for the story should have been something quite different. I would suggest “Industry Group Uses Its Own Funds To Promote Its Products; Data Shows Middling Success.” But that wouldn’t have landed the story in the paper, much less the front page.

So, Moss had to fudge. And as the story has been constantly misinterpreted — by some, like Pollan, who should know better — neither the Times nor Moss has stepped up to state the facts.

The story is about Dairy Management and its promotion of cheese, particularly its deal with Domino’s Pizza. Dairy Management is at the center of a contradiction, according to Moss. It is, he writes, 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.”

Moss’s example of these contradictory goals is a new line of Domino’s pizzas with 40 percent more cheese. Dairy Management helped with the concept and helped with the advertising for this heart-clogging product, and the promotion has appeared to work. People are eating these cheese-heavy pizzas. 

Moss tells how Dairy Management has collaborated with a number of fast food joints to create truly fattening creations that use loads of cheese. (I swear I saw an advertisement last night on television promoting a $10 pizza that weighed four pounds.)

Yes, cheese consumption has been going up for the past three decades. But per capita cheese consumption was rising faster before it was promoted by the checkoff program than after.
And guess what?, Moss writes: Americans are eating more cheese. The average American ate 33 pounds of cheese in 2009, three times the 1970 average. Government-led advertising and advocacy have been quite successful, Moss implies. Just look at the increase in the amount of cheese American have eaten over the last four decades.

The story is about hypocrisy. On the one hand, the Ag Department and Michelle Obama want people to eat healthy. On the other hand, a “marketing creation” of the USDA is promoting truly fattening foods.

The First Lady complains about people eating too much mac and cheese while Dairy Management promotes a Taco Bell creation that uses eight times the cheese found on other offerings on the menu.

The story led the Sunday Times and then spread like a house afire. Readers assumed Dairy Management, a “marketing creation” of the government, was using taxpayer money to promote foods so thick with cheese that they would clog a sewer line.

This is all misleading at best, and in large part it’s wrong. Down in the story, Moss reports (correctly) that Dairy Management 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….”

But he never explains that Dairy Management is an example of agricultural marketing that is used to promote more than a dozen kinds of food. And he doesn’t tell you that the millions in government money that goes to Dairy Management is only used to open markets in other countries.

Is there a celebrity who hasn’t promoted a dairy product? Here’s Taylor Swift.
Congress has passed legislation that allows food producers to pool their resources in order to promote their products. Producers vote to tax themselves based on their sales, and the money is put into a fund that a board of producers then uses to promote their goods. Farmers call this a checkoff.

The decision on how to spend checkoff funds is made by boards of producers. (The USDA appoints some members of these boards.) The USDA oversees these funds, to make sure there is no impropriety and to see that the programs are honest, but all of USDA’s costs are reimbursed by checkoff money.

Why is the government involved at all in this business? Once producers vote, federal law requires that everybody pays the fee. This cuts out the problem of having free riders, producers who benefit from the advertising but don’t pay for it. The government is needed to create these programs as a way of taking care of the free-rider issue.

There are checkoff programs for corn, soybeans, pork, beef, eggs, honey and avocados. Money is collected when farmers sell their goods, and that money is used to promote these foods. In 1983, Congress passed a bill that would allow for a dairy checkoff. 

We are all familiar with advertising campaigns paid for with checkoff funds. The “Other White Meat” ads came from the pork checkoff. The “Got Milk” campaign is the most famous dairy checkoff fund creation.

These producer-led boards — not the USDA — created Dairy Management in 1994 and gave it the job of selling more dairy products. Dairy Management’s budget is $140 million.

This is the story: Dairy producers tax themselves to create a pool of money used to promote milk and cheese. The USDA oversees this fund, but producers pay all the costs incurred by the government. 

Moss says that Dairy Management gets “millions” from the USDA, and, in fact, it does get about $5.4 million from the government. But this money isn’t spent for domestic advertising. This money is used only for work on opening export markets for U.S. milk. No taxpayer money is used to do the kind of promotions Moss described.

Dairy Management pushes dairy products. That’s its job. It uses money set aside by dairy producers specifically for this purpose. This is exactly what Congress intended when it passed the 1983 Dairy Act.

Moss implies that the promotional activity of Dairy Management is the reason why Americans are now eating three times the cheese they consumed in 1970. (See this exchange between Melissa Block and Moss on NPR, where Moss again promotes the 1970 comparison.)  But the trebling of cheese consumption since 1970 is a very odd way to prove Moss’s point. After all, Congress didn’t pass the dairy checkoff law until 1983, and Dairy Management wasn’t created until 1994. So why go back 24 years earlier to 1970 to make your comparison?

It’s because the largest increases in per capita cheese eating by Americans took place before the checkoff was in place.

From 1975 to 1985, the per capita consumption of cheese increased by .81 pounds a year without the help of any checkoff advertising. (Congress authorized the dairy checkoff in ’83. I gave the program two years to get up and running. The “Got Milk” campaign didn’t start until ’93.)

From 1986 until 2009, after checkoff money began flowing, the average per capita cheese consumption in the U.S. increased by .44 pounds a year. (I don’t include cottage cheese in these comparisons; if I had, the differences between the two time periods would be larger.)

The per capita increase during the period when cheese wasn’t being advertised was about twice the increase when the checkoff program was in place. In fact, you could write a story saying that the effect of the checkoff has been to reduce the yearly increase in per capita cheese consumption.

Writers and NPR hosts are agog at the increase in consumption of cheese since 1970. But 44% of that gain took place before there was a cheese advertising budget.

And, remember, Dairy Management wasn’t creased until 1994. Since 1994, per capita cheese consumption has risen 25%, not 300%.

Doesn’t sound as good, does it?

So, let’s see what we’re left with. We have a producer-funded advertising program engaged in the entirely unsurprising job of promoting the goods the farmers who pay for the program produce. No taxpayer money is used to fund this program. And cheese consumption was growing faster before the program started than now.

There are problems with checkoff programs. Just recently, an audit found that the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association violated federal rules by using beef checkoff funds to support lobbying. Years ago, hog farmers led a revolt against the pork checkoff program. They thought the checkoff money was being used to support more packers than producers.

Moss’s story does point out a contradiction — that USDA is in the business of both promoting rural economies and setting guidelines for diets. There is tension there. And, yes, the dairy industry group has used dubious studies to say that milk products help people lose weight. Moss has a good story there.

But Americans didn’t need Dairy Management to tell them they liked cheesey wads on their pizzas and tacos. They were well on their way to a cheesier diet before Dairy Management ever appeared.

Obesity is not a product of advertising. It’s the result of people stuffing ever-larger quantities of fatty food down their pie holes. (I would venture here that the fact that Americans are eating two-thirds of an ounce of cheese a day is not the primary reason for our extra poundage.)

But this story fits into a new kind of journalism  — the demonization of a food. 

Over the last few years, corn and corn syrup have been blamed for our increasingly girthy citizens. We are fat, the story goes, because corn syrup has been made cheap by subsidies and this has spurred consumption of soft drinks. We down buckets of Big Slurps filled with corn syrup made cheap by the government — and that’s why we’re fat. Studies finding that subsidies don’t add to our caloric intake get little attention.

Food that travels long distances is bad because it wastes so much energy. We should become locavores. Meanwhile, study after study finds that food shipped in often uses less energy than the local stuff.

Now have a new food demon. Cheese.

Cheese is making us as big as barns and we don’t have to blame ourselves for our gluttony. It’s the government that’s doing it. The government is conspiring with evil corporations to “spike” our food with deadly milk products — and selling us this cheesey death sentence from rural America with taxpayer money.

It would be a heckuva story, if it were true.


News Briefs