In Focus: NY Times finds embarrassing government hypocrisy. With cheese.

Originally posted on Nov. 10, 2010 on the Olson Communications company blog. Republished with permission. See original post here, and follow Olson Communication on Twitter: @olson_comm

On Saturday, The New York Times published a great where-are-your-tax-dollars-going story: a USDA-created nonprofit has been heavily pushing obesity-causing cheese sales, even as the USDA is combating obesity.

In a nutshell: the United States Department of Agriculture has been tasked with combating obesity in the U.S. About two-thirds of America is overweight or obese, and heart disease is the No. 1 killer of Americans. But while the USDA carried on the good fight against poor American diets, one of its creations – the nonprofit marketing/communications group Dairy Management – pushed the sales of cheese to Americans through extensive (and successful) marketing campaigns.

Cheese is linked to heart disease and obesity, The New York Times article notes. And Dairy Management’s cheese-pushing annual budget “approaches $140 million,” according to the article.

Dairy Management, by the way, is behind the Got Milk? campaign. These guys are good. The article suggests Dairy Management helped develop and market a new line of pizzas for Domino’s Pizza with 40 percent more cheese, then came up with and paid for a $12 million marketing campaign to sell those pizzas.

One of my favorite parts of reading a story like this is imagining how the story got into the press. Did the New York Times reporter stumble across this while following the money? Did a disgruntled dairy researcher leak this? Was the reporter just Googling “Got Milk?” one day and found an article that led to a phone call? Did an original source for this story have an axe to grind? Maybe it went down like this:

The reporter for this story, by the way, was Michael Moss, who’s been an investigative reporter with the Times for 10 years and won the Pulitzer Prize this year for reporting on food safety.

A few points from this story:

  • American cows give about 60 million gallons of milk daily, yet less than a third of that goes toward making milk that people drink.
  • Dairy Management enlisted researchers to help prove theories that consuming dairy products help weight loss and weren’t pleased with the research because it found no evidence. They threatened to audit the work.
  • USDA data show cheese is a big reason the American diet contains too much saturated fat.

There’s a final perspective to consider here: yes, this appears to be a massive conflict-of-interest by the USDA (which does plenty of useful things, obviously).  But on the flip-side of the government-never-works ideology, the USDA was enormously effective at creating a nonprofit organization to sell all that excess cheese and dairy. There was plenty of efficient, public-sector talent put to inappropriate use – but hey, the public sector is at least fully capable of getting a job done. Ask not what your country…

Editor’s note: Matt Culbertson is an intern at Olson Communications. Follow him on Twitter: @mattculbertson


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