June 25, 2009
Video games, fattening snack foods and the parents themselves are often blamed for the dramatic spike in overweight and obese kids during the past 30 years or so. But speakers at the National Conference on Childhood Obesity last week in Washington, D.C. attempted to frame the issue in a different light, looking at the bigger picture. They asked the question: Are government and industry responsible for childhood obesity?
While the end goal should not be to find an all-purpose scapegoat for the obesity epidemic (none exists), or merely to shift blame to one party or another, panelists did try to explain how government and industry can affect that ever-important balance of energy in vs. energy out, and what role these entities have in the prevention of obesity and the promotion of healthy food choices. Whether we like it or not, public policies do have an effect on what we eat, so we should at least be aware of how they do so, right?
Dr. Neal Barnard, director of the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM)—the group behind the conference—reiterated the common refrain (if you’ve been to a few of these type of meetings or read books by the likes of Marion Nestle or Michael Pollan) that government food subsidies and dietary guidelines have been more about business and politics than about substantiated nutrition research. As a result, meat and dairy consumption is disproportionately promoted in dietary guidelines—because of the industries’ lobbying power and in spite of the nutritional concerns involving some of these foods.
One particularly interesting tidbit was Barnard’s assertion that the feds have partnered with fast food giants like Subway, Pizza Hut, Burger King and Taco Bell to increase Americans’ cheese intake and benefit the nation’s dairy industry. They did this by creating new cheesy menu items, offering special promotions and in some cases even instructing staff to whet the appetite of their customers by asking them if they want cheese on their respective burger, sandwich or taco as they stood at the counter or pulled up to the drive-thru window.
While PCRM has their own agenda to promote (including veganism), they do have a point that it seems a bit insidious for the government to be actively involved in shoving more cheese down the nation’s collective throat—especially since most cheese is high in saturated fat and cholesterol. Too much of these artery-cloggers would cause an individual to exceed USDA’s own dietary guidelines. Just four ounces of cheddar cheese in a day would exceed the recommended daily allowance of saturated fat and comprise 40 percent of the recommended limit of cholesterol.
So how exactly was the government involved in hyping cheese?
Well—it’s a bit convoluted, but here’s a brief primer. The dairy industry is one of 18 national generic marketing programs deemed “checkoff” programs. This means that dairy producers are one group of food producers who must pay a portion of their sales revenue toward this general fund used for ads and promotion. The thought behind these programs is that it is difficult to get customers to differentiate between different brands of certain products, so these programs help spur demand for the industry in general.
A recent example: McDonald’s is partnering with the dairy industry’s checkoff program to promote their new line of McCafe drinks.
The latest estimates put funding for the dairy checkoff program at $280 million a year. It’s not too surprising that the dairy industry has this kind of money—considering all those “Got Milk?” ads and “Behold the Power of Cheese” commercials. The checkoff program is also responsible for the unintentionally amusing ilovecheese.com, where visitors to the site can find recipes, discover new types of cheeses, and even take a quiz to decipher which cheeses best suit their lifestyle and personality (Apparently, I’m a “cheese trendsetter. Who knew?).
In case you were still wondering how the government is involved in all of this, it’s the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service that administers these checkoff programs in conjunction with the trade organization’s case. In dairy’s case, it’s Dairy Management, Inc., which includes the National Dairy Council, the American Dairy Association and the U.S. Dairy Export Council. According to the Congressional Research Service:
Title V of the Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-127) gave USDA broad-based authority to establish national generic promotion and research programs for virtually any commodity, either at its own initiative or upon the request of an industry group, without waiting for specific legislative authority.
Furthermore, USDA has the authority to review and approve the plans of checkoff programs. Yet another example of the blurry lines between USDA regulating an industry and promoting it. But what’s the alternative? I don’t see an obvious solution under our current system because industry self-regulation has its own inherent problems, and the dairy industry, along with any other food industry, has the right to advertise. Beyond that, it’s not the USDA that is funding the ads, just approving them.
What do you think? What authority should the USDA have in promoting the foods it regulates? Should there be some nutritionally-based standards for USDA approved ads—particularly ads that reach children? Certainly, when it comes to the health of our nation’s children, we need to do better when it comes to school lunches, food safety and obesity, to name a few. Recognizing the government and industry’s role in our food system and our health is vital—and although fixing the flaws in the system is fraught with political and practical challenges, it’s no excuse for apathy among public health advocates. A good starting point would be ensuring that the USDA’s industry promotion arm doesn’t contradict its own nutrition recommendations, and also ensuring that dietary guidelines and school policies are based on the work of sound nutrition scientists, not lobbyists.
– Patti Truant