|Eating Liberally’s kat (a.k.a. Kerry Trueman) asks one of her inimitable “Ask Marion” questions, this one about Michael Moss’s blockbuster story in today’s New York Times about dairy lobbying.
KT: Sunday’s New York Times has a disturbing exposé by Michael Moss about the USDA’s efforts to aid the dairy industry by encouraging excessive cheese consumption. Can the USDA ever reconcile its two mandates? On the one hand, the USDA has the task of tackling the obesity epidemic by encouraging healthier eating habits. Yet it must also promote the interests of U.S. agriculture. As Moss documents so well, these two missions are in total conflict.
Dr. Nestle: And so they are, have been, and will be until public outrage causes some changes in Washington. In two of my books, Food Politics and What to Eat, I wrote about how dairy lobbying groups, aided and abetted by the
The USDA is still at it. As Michael Moss notes:
So let’s talk about “moderation,” a word that I find hard to use without irony. The pizza illustrated in Michael Moss’s article is described as a “thin-crust medium pie.” The diameter is not given, but one-fourth of the pie contains 430 calories, 12 grams of saturated fat (20 is the daily recommended upper limit), and 990 mg sodium (the upper limit is 2,300).
Who eats one-quarter of a pizza? Not anyone I know. So double all this if you share it with a friend. If you eat the whole thing–and why do I think that plenty of Domino Pizza customers do?–you are consuming more than 1700 calories, nearly 4,000 mg sodium (that’s 10 grams of salt, by the way), and 48 grams of saturated fat. This is enough to make any nutritionist run screaming from the room.
So why is USDA in bed with dairy lobbying groups? That’s its job. From its beginnings in the 1860s, USDA’s role was to promote U.S. agricultural production and sales, with the full support of what was then a largely agricultural Congress. Only in the 1970s, did USDA pick up all those pesky food assistance programs and capture the “lead federal agency” role in providing dietary advice to the public.
Much of Food Politics is devoted to describing the USDA’s severe conflict of interest in developing dietary advice to “eat less” of basic agricultural commodities. As Times reporter Marian Burros put it in one of her articles about the fights over the 1992 Pyramid, which visually suggested eating less meat and dairy, “the foxes are
This is what Mrs. Obama is up against in her efforts to reduce childhood obesity and bring healthier foods into America’s inner cities.
How to change this system? One possibility might be to move dietary guidance into a more independent federal agency, NIH or CDC for example. Another might be to recognize the ways in which corporate lobbyists corrupt our food system and do something about election campaign laws.
A pipe dream? Maybe, but I never thought I’d live to see the editors of the New York Times consider an article about USDA checkoff programs to be front-page news, and in the right-hand column yet, marking it as the most important news story of the day.
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The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which got $51 million in checkoff funds last year, is improperly allowing some of this money to be spent on lobbying activities, according to William Neuman in today’s New York Times.
Although the check-off legislation specifically prohibits use of the funds for lobbying, the distinction between promoting a product to consumers as opposed to promoting it to lawmakers can be subtle. Some of the boards are so closely affiliated with lobbying groups that they share office space.
For many years, the Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board (check-off organization) shared an address with the National Cattleman’s Association (trade association lobbying group), and the National Pork Board (check-off) shared offices, staff, and telephone services with the National Pork Producers Council (lobbying).
Even cozier, the legislation specifies that a certain percentage of the funds must be allocated to the commodity groups responsible for nominating the board members who run the programs; these members are officially appointed by USDA.
Check-off funds are supposed to be used for research as well as advertising, but only a small fraction is used for that purpose. In the mid-1990s, 8% of the beef check-off’s $80 million or so went to research, and the rest for promotion and “information;” research percentages for dairy, egg, potato, and soybean checkoff programs were slightly higher.
Regardless of level, nearly all of the research is designed to promote the commodity. Beef check-off research is designed to “dispel negative perceptions about beef,” and to develop a factual basis for viewing beef products as “part of a varied, convenient, and healthful diet”….The great majority of the funds are spent to convince consumers to choose one type of food product over another.
The Meat and Beef Boards, for example, design campaigns to build demand for red meats and meat products; encourage consumers to view beef as wholesome, versatile, and lower in cholesterol; and educate doctors, nurses, dietitians, teachers, and the media about the nutritional benefits of beef.
Checkoff programs reek of conflicts of interest. What makes this particular audit so interesting is that it was done by an outside accounting firm. Usually, these things are done internally and remain private. Chalk one up for this administration’s attempt to be transparent.
The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee held a hearing yesterday on its recent report (see my posts of June 28 on the politics of this report, and June 29 on its science). I could not attend the hearing but am collecting second-hand reports from people who attended or testified.
Philip Brasher, who blogs at GreenFields.com, summarizes lobbyists at work:
- National Pork Producers: “Lean meat is a vital source of high-quality protein and certainly should not be framed as a food to limit in the American diet….Urging Americans to shift to a more plant-based diet and consume only moderate amounts of lean meat implies they should decrease consumption of this vital, complete protein.”
- Egg producers: “The average American could increase egg consumption and still be within the egg-a-day limit.”
- The Sugar Association: Advice to reduce sugar is “impractical, unrealistic and not grounded in the body of evidence.”
- The Salt Institute: “Encouraging consumption of low-salt foods will encourage Americans to eat excessively to make up for the lack of taste….The guidelines have become far more a reflection of ideology than sound science.”
The Organic Trade Association testified that the scientific review, which found no significant nutritional differences between organic and conventionally produced foods, is:
Neither grounded in current science nor relevant to the mandate of the Dietary Guidelines….[it is] in direct conflict with the advice put forth by the recent President’s Cancer Panel report regarding ways to reduce environmental cancer risk….It is inconceivable and alarming that the very document that is the underpinning of our nation’s policies regarding food and nutrition would include a statement that directly contradicts these recommendations….As released, the guidelines confuse the consumer, contradict the President’s own Cancer Panel, and do not enhance dietary recommendations.
To repeat: The committee report is simply advisory. So is the lobbying. The sponsoring federal agencies, USDA and DHHS, now must deal with both as well as with written comments on the report’s statements and recommendations.
The agencies write the final guidelines. Will they include advice to cut down on added sugars and fatty meats? Will they say anything positive about organic foods?
Maybe, if enough people weigh in with such opinions. Comments are due by July 15. Here’s how.
Addition, July 10: Amber Healy’s terrific account in Food Chemical News (July 12) summarizes the hearings as “largely boiling down to a single question: Is meat good or bad?” For example:
- People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), the Soyfoods Association of North America and Christina Pirello, the host of a cooking show on PBS: the guidelines should more clearly spell out the benefits of reducing meat consumption and take a stronger position on the need to reduce intake of processed meats.
- Sally Fallon Morell, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation: the recommended reduction in intake of lean meat and protein from animal sources could “perpetuate the kind of nutrient deficiencies” that the guidelines try to avoid and even lead to lower fertility rates.
- Betsy Booren of the American Meat Institute: If people try to consume the same amount of protein from plant-based foods, people could end up consuming more calories than if they had simply eaten some lean meat or poultry.
And, the National Dairy Council and the International Dairy Foods Association approved of the recommendation for three daily servings of low-fat or fat-free milk or dairy foods, but asked that the final guidelines acknowledge that flavored low-fat milk [i.e. chocolate] can encourage consumption among children.
It’s hard for mere mortals to track the extent of food lobbying and its effects on, for example, farm subsidies.
Thanks to the Yale Rudd Center for setting up a lobbying data base where you can track who spends money on what. It is searchable by year, issue, and sponsor.
And thanks to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) for setting up a data base for tracking farm subsidies. This, as I mentioned in an earlier post, linked subsidies to specific farms in specific locations. Uh oh. EWG can’t do that any more. According to EWG:
Our 2007 database used previously unavailable records to uncover nearly 500,000 individuals who had never been identified as farm subsidy recipients. Many had been shielded by their involvement in byzantine mazes of co-ops and corporate entity shell games. For example, the database revealed that Florida real estate developer Maurice Wilder, reportedly worth $500 million, was pulling in almost $1 million a year in farm subsidies for corn farms he owns in several states.
Unfortunately for our 2010 update, the data that provided such a revelatory account of just who receives the billions paid out in the maze of federal farm subsidy programs is no longer available to us.
That’s because Congress changed the wording of the 1614 provision in the 2008 farm bill from USDA “shall” release such data to USDA “may” release such data. USDA has since decided not to release the information. According to USDA officials, the database can cost as much as $6.7 million to produce, and Congress did not appropriate money to compile the database.
This, says EWG, makes the Obama administration less forthcoming than the Bush administration. Amazing, the effects of one word change on EWG’s – and our – ability to see why farm subsidies are so corrupt.
My NYU Department developed programs in Food Studies based on the premise that food is so central to the human condition that studying it is a great way to get into much larger social questions. I’ve just found a terrific example in the April 9 New York Review of Books in which Michael Tomasky reviews So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Goverment, by Robert G. Kaiser. I immediately ordered a copy.
According to the review, the book chronicles events in the history of a Washington, DC lobbying firm, Schlossberg – Cassidy, run by former staff members of Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, chaired by George McGovern (Dem-SD). The firm parlayed its thorough knowledge of food assistance programs into a consulting practice devoted to helping corporations deal with pesky regulations and policies that affect agriculture, food, nutrition, and health. To give just one example: the firm’s first academic client was Jean Mayer, the nutritionist president of Tufts University. He recruited the firm to get Congress to appropriate $27 million for a national nutrition center at Tufts. The result is the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University.
But this first earmark set a precedent that led to today’s deeply corrupt system of rampant congressional earmarks, election campaign contributions, dependence on polls and focus groups, and climate of political partisanship.
A book about food lobbying and its larger political and social consequences! I can’t wait to read it.
Thanks to CSPI’s Margo Wootan for sending the link to this nifty video about school lunch lobbying (she is featured in it, eloquently). The video, made by the American News Project, takes place at a January 28 hearing on school lunch nutrition regulations run by the Institute of Medicine (IOM). The IOM is working on developing science-based criteria for the nutritional quality of school meals. Take a look at who is in the audience. Question: What are they doing there? Answer: The USDA buys enormous quantities of food commodities to supply schools enrolled in federal school meal programs. The video gets a 5-star YouTube rating, and for good reason.
Today’s question comes from Nic: “Are there lobbyists that work for promoting public health and nutrition, or does Congress primarily receive information through government groups (FDA, etc.)?”
Yes, lobbyists work for nutrition and health groups. These groups register as lobbyists and you can look them up on congressional listings. Groups such as the American Public Health Association and Center for Science in the Public Interest have people on staff whose job it is to provide information to elected officials and federal agency staff. But these groups don’t have anywhere near the resources or political clout of food or drug companies. Donations to election campaigns: that’s the real problem, as you can see by looking at data collected by Open Secrets.