Monday, November 8, 2010

Michelle Obama and The Big Cheese

Has our First Lady bitten off more than she can chew?

Posted by: Noel Jones

You may remember that soon after President Obama was elected, our First Lady, Michelle Obama, declared war on obesity in America--especially among our poor. She may not have realized what she is up against. There are three major culprits in the American diet that accelerate obesity: 1. Corn syrup, 2. Sugar, and 3. The Big Cheese.

DISCLAIMER: I love cheese. Little gets me more excited than a good glass of red wine and a sampling of quality cheeses. But this is a story of QUANTITY vs. QUALITY.

In this article in The New York Times, Michael Moss reports that Big Dairy, with the help of our U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, is pushing dairy consumption to every increasing heights to spur profit growth for the dairy industry. This campaign, among other strategies, partners with restaurant chains to devise new cheesier menu items, as well as multi-million dollar advertising (paid for by an association called Dairy Management which was started by the Dept. of Agriculture) to convince Americans to consume ever higher amounts of cheese, including Dominoes new 6 Cheese Pizza, which includes 40% more cheese than any of their other pizzas, and Taco Bell's Steak and Cheese Enchilada, which has eight times more cheese than any other menu item.

The campaigns actually claim that more cheese is good for people, because it is a good source of calcium. But this is another one of the myths that Big Dairy has propagated throughout the years to increase profits--the belief that bones are made of calcium, and therefore that we need lots of it. In truth, our bones are made up of 12 different minerals in a balance--if the balance is upset by too much of one mineral and not enough of others, our bones can actually become weaker, according to Dr. Robert Thompson, author of The Calcium Lie. The ad campaigns go even further to suggest that consuming cheese will help you to lose weight. Have they no shame?

Moss writes about Dairy Management: "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."

It's important to note that these advertising campaigns to pump more cheese into our lives (the average American eats 33 lbs. of cheese per year) have been advised and approved by the Department of Agriculture under both Bush and Obama administrations. 

So what I'm wondering is this: Is Michelle Obama going to take on Big Dairy and clean house in the Dept. of Agriculture?


noel jones said...

I was just thinking about this and how during the bdget meetings for the school board earlier this year, the dairy industry made a proposal to install additional vending machines (that taxpayers paid for) to offer additional dairy products, even though milk was already offered in the school lunch program and the board voted it in (not unanimously)...this during meetings that were supposed to be cutting expenses in the budget, not increasing them.

Dennis R. Lieb said...

The US Department of Ag fulfills for the country the same role the PA Dept of Ag fulfills for the state: a marketing and strong-arm legal branch of corporate dominance.

The current situation isn't new. I attended the Food and Farm Summit in Wilmington Delaware at least six years ago. It is attended by a Who's Who of farming and food evaluation experts from across the country and everybody there knew what big Ag was doing then.

The whole national organic labeling issue was new then and we were told by people who work in the organic realm that the labeling was nothing more than a marketing campaign and had no relationship to food safety, nutrition or the reality of how food is grown. They said we'd all be better off making local food choices (farmer's markets, CSA's etc.) over nationally labeled organics any day of the week.

At this point the USDA is the equivalent of the Atomic Energy Commission from 1952 to 1987. They were tasked with the dual role of both regulating AND promoting nuclear energy. How well did that work out?

Can anybody say Three Mile Island?


noel jones said...

then I guess we shouldn't be surprised when a self-proclaimed dairy industry advocate comes from Penn State Extension into our neighborhood as a trainer for a leadership workshop and spends the whole time promoting natural gas drilling and dismissing resident concerns over water contamination from doesn't seem to matter whether its Big Ag, Big Pharma, Big Oil or Big Gas, it's all about pushing more and more consumption to widen the profit margin even at the expense of human health, and in some cases, life.

AprilDiana said...

I really hope she does take on Big Cheese. We need these regulatory agencies to protect the health of Americans more than the profits of an industry. I wonder what would happen if she did. How strategic it would be. Perhaps it will begin with a comment to reporters. I would prefer a nice public service announcement with Elmo.

carinne said...

Noel, you have a good point about the EASB. One correction, the vending machines to house the new plastic milk products were part of a $30,000 grant. The machine itself was not supposed to cost taxpayers money. The cost would come into play from running the machines and the electric bills month after month/ year after year. The rep from Big Dairy presented the $30,000 grant in a way that made it seem the students or school would benefit from the grant. After some good questions (from a few board members) it was clear that Big Dairy were the ones to benefit. The grant money was for better display and advertising of dairy products, “to encourage more dairy consumption”. By the time this was realized, the electric cost of running the new machines as well as the plastic containers (worse than the old cardboard) were already mentioned. What was not brought up was any promotion of skim or low fat vs. chocolate or full fat, or yogurt over cheese pizza. A tired board voted quick to move onto the more important firing teachers to save money.