Cheesy Government — Special Interest vs Public Health

A NYTimes article with the fitting title „While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales“ delivers a great (in both senses of the word) example of what special interest money does to a democratic government. It talks about how, while at the same time trying to get people to eat more healthy food, the US government is sponsoring campaigns promoting one of the single most unhealthy foods in the American diet: Cheese. And on a whole different scale.

Let’s start with the nutritional facts, hopefully old news for most people:

Agriculture Department data show that cheese is a major reason the average American diet contains too much saturated fat.

Saturated fats are link to a range of health problems, especially heart and cardiovascular diseases.

The industry’s problem started with a public effort to eat more healthy, in a way:

Urged on by government warnings about saturated fat, Americans have been moving toward low-fat milk for decades, leaving a surplus of whole milk and milk fat. Yet the government, through Dairy Management, is engaged in an effort to find ways to get dairy back into Americans’ diets, primarily through cheese.

Americans now eat an average of 33 pounds of cheese a year, nearly triple the 1970 rate. Cheese has become the largest source of saturated fat; an ounce of many cheeses contains as much saturated fat as a glass of whole milk.

It would be a waste to throw that fat away, too, wouldn’t it? If you wanna have fat-free milk, why not go for tasty milk alternatives like soy, rice or oat milk? Just a brief vegan intermezzo.

Now the really interesting and shocking part is the relation between pro-cheese campaigns and health-food campaigns:

Dairy Management runs the largest of 18 Agriculture Department programs that market beef, pork, potatoes and other commodities. Their budgets are largely paid by levies imposed on farmers, but Dairy Management, which reported expenditures of $136 million last year, also received $5.3 million that year from the Agriculture Department to promote dairy sales overseas.

By comparison, the department’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, which promotes healthy diets, has a total budget of $6.5 million.

So the total spending ratio is about 20 to 1, and the government spends about the same amount of money on promoting cheese alone (there 17 more similar programs) as it does on eating healthy. Somehow I have the feeling that small-government proponents in the Republican party would still worry more about the healthy food part, labeling it a government intrusion into American’s kitchens.

The story falls into complete absurdity when science enters the field, and the double credibility of scientific and government backing promote what turns out as something closer to lies than mistakes:

“Great news for dieters,” Dairy Management said in an advertisement in People magazine in 2005. “Clinical studies show that people on a reduced-calorie diet who consume three servings of milk, cheese or yogurt each day can lose significantly more weight and more body fat than those who just cut calories.”

With milk consumption in decline, Dairy Management had hit on a fresh marketing strategy with its weight-loss campaign.

When the campaign began in 2003, a Dairy Management official said it was inspired by newly relaxed federal rules on health claims and the ensuing “rapid growth of ‘better for you’ products.”

True, there had been a study backing that claim at the time. But evidence was soon mounting it was false. And was suppressed and ignored:

One such study was conducted by Jean Harvey-Berino, chairwoman of the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Vermont. “I think they felt they had a lot riding on it,” she said of the weight loss claim, “and felt it was a cash cow if it worked out.”

“I’m a big promoter of dairy,” she added, noting that her research was also paid for by Dairy Management.

But by 2004, her study had found no evidence of weight loss. She said Dairy Management took the news poorly, threatening to audit her work. She said she was astonished when the organization pressed on with its ad campaign.

“I thought they were crazy, and that eventually somebody would catch up with them,” she said.

Her study was published in 2005, and at scientific meetings she heard from other researchers who also failed to confirm Dr. Zemel’s work, including Dr. Jack A. Yanovski, an obesity unit chief at the National Institutes of Health.

But in late 2006, Dairy Management was still citing the weight-loss claim in urging the Agriculture Department not to cut the amount of cheese in federal food assistance programs. “The available data provide strong support for a beneficial effect of increased dairy foods on body weight and body composition,” two organization officials wrote, making no mention of Dr. Harvey-Berino’s findings.

Having dismissed the weight-loss claim in 2005, the federal nutrition advisory committee this summer again found the underlying science “not convincing.”

This specific campaign has been halted, but the general direction has not changed:

Meanwhile, Dairy Management, which allotted $12.4 million for nutrition research in 2008, has moved on to finance studies on promising opportunities, including the promotion of chocolate milk as a sports recovery drink and the use of cheese to entice children into eating healthy foods like string beans.

At the same time the organization works with corporations to increase the usage of cheese, and boasts with its successes:

And unlike with its advertising campaigns, Dairy Management and the Agriculture Department could point to specific results with these projects. The “Summer of Cheese” promotion it developed with Pizza Hut in 2002 generated the use of 102 million additional pounds of cheese, the department reported to Congress.

Sad for health. Sad for animals. Sad for science. Sad for democracy.

Datum: Sonntag, 7. November 2010 16:12
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