Dairy’s Dark Deeds


Milk’s wholesome “does a body good” image begins to fall apart when we start to take a look at the policies and alliances between the dairy industry, U.S. government, and junk food companies -- according to author, lawyer, and food activist Michelle R. Simon's latest report, Whitewashed: How Industry and Government Promote Dairy Junk Foods.

The USDA “national dairy checkoff” is a promotional scheme designed to promote milk and dairy consumption, funded by exercising a mandatory fee from all dairy farmers (it was originally voluntary). Some of this money ends up in the hands of fast food chains, among other things, helping them integrate dairy into their over-sized, over-sugared, over-processed meals. In the beginning of the report Simon writes:

The dairy industry, propped up by government, has convinced us of the health benefits of milk and other dairy products. The assumption that eating dairy is essential to the diet has obstructed our ability to criticize federal government support for unhealthy dairy products, of which there are many."

This list of ways in which the dairy checkoff program has supported the likes of Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, Taco Bell, etc. is long and scary. Of particular concern are the ways in which the program influences public schools. In her recent opinion piece in Al Jazeera America, Simon explains:

Schools are especially vulnerable to dairy industry influence. With the recent controversy over the sugar content of what the industry euphemistically calls “flavored milk,” marketers are desperate to maintain this lucrative captive audience. The USDA-supported milk checkoff program (fluid milk has a checkoff program separate from dairy products such as cheese and ice cream) promotes campaigns — such as Chocolate Milk Has Muscle and Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk — that tout the nutritional benefits of flavored milk."

Other concerning facts uncovered in the report include findings such as cheese being the single largest source of saturated fat in American diets, and 11 percent of all sugar goes into the production of dairy products. There are also some scary findings on dairy in school: 70 percent of milk consumed in schools is flavored!

Following up on Simon’s research, Kiera Butler of Mother Jones reached out to a USDA spokesperson who hid behind “free market” rhetoric, washing the USDA’s hands of any real involvement.

Check-off programs are not USDA initiatives, they are completely initiated, funded, and implemented by agricultural producers so they can join together to advertise their products," he wrote to me in an email. "USDA only has the power to ensure these industry efforts are conducted in accordance with the law, and any changes in USDA's authority over these programs would have to come from Congress."

You heard the man, so it looks like we’ll just have to go to Congress! Though this is certainly a sad state of affairs just as worrisome for our democracy as it is our waistlines (and those of our children), there is recourse through sending our collective voice to Congress. Be on the look out for ways in which we can move the dairy checkoff program to be more aligned with supporting farmers and less so with tricky marketing tactics.

PHOTO: Alison Mickelson, Creative Commons


Read all articles by Damon Cory-Watson

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