Young and Hungry

The Reversal of Outrage Over the USDA and Cheese

On Sunday, Nov. 7, The New York Times published a story that spelled out the U.S. Department of Agriculture's hypocritical role in America's dietary life: The agency that pushes for healthier diets, the paper pointed out, has simultaneously created and partially funded a marketing group designed to add tons more cheese into our lives via products like Domino's pizza.

As you might expect, Michael Moss' story has generated lots of outrage, even a little bit right here on Y&H.

There is just one small problem with this cheesy controversy. Well, two large problems: The USDA didn't create Dairy Management, and the government doesn't fund the marketing group's domestic efforts to inject more cheese into our meals. Several writers have revealed the flawed premise of the Times story.  First among them is author Bill Bishop, who writes:

The story led the Sunday Times and then spread like a house afire. Readers assumed Dairy Management, a “marketing creation” of the government, was using taxpayer money to promote foods so thick with cheese that they would clog a sewer line.

This is all misleading at best, and in large part it's wrong. Down in the story, Moss reports (correctly) that Dairy Management is “largely financed by a government-mandated fee on the dairy industry. But it also receives several million dollars a year from the Agriculture Department….”

But he never explains that Dairy Management is an example of agricultural marketing that is used to promote more than a dozen kinds of food. And he doesn’t tell you that the millions in government money that goes to Dairy Management is only used to open markets in other countries.

Congress has passed legislation that allows food producers to pool their resources in order to promote their products. Producers vote to tax themselves based on their sales, and the money is put into a fund that a board of producers then uses to promote their goods. Farmers call this a checkoff.

The decision on how to spend checkoff funds is made by boards of producers. (The USDA appoints some members of these boards.) The USDA oversees these funds, to make sure there is no impropriety and to see that the programs are honest, but all of USDA’s costs are reimbursed by checkoff money.

Why is the government involved at all in this business? Once producers vote, federal law requires that everybody pays the fee. This cuts out the problem of having free riders, producers who benefit from the advertising but don’t pay for it. The government is needed to create these programs as a way of taking care of the free-rider issue.

There are checkoff programs for corn, soybeans, pork, beef, eggs, honey and avocados. Money is collected when farmers sell their goods, and that money is used to promote these foods. In 1983, Congress passed a bill that would allow for a dairy checkoff.

A few days later, James McWilliams, an associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, piled on with a short piece for The Atlantic food channel. McWilliams concluded:

So in the end Moss's story was not about the USDA using taxpayer dollars to fund a cheesy agreement between Dairy Management and Domino's Pizza. Instead it was about the dairy industry paying for marketing services—services that happen to be regulated by the USDA—designed to sell more cheese.

And of course that's not much of a story.

So far, the Times has not corrected or clarified its blockbuster story, even though Bishop's piece was published on Nov. 10, more than a week ago. Does the Times know something that Bishop doesn't? (The great Marion Nestle, for example, didn't attempt to correct Moss' story in her own Atlantic piece.) Or are the paper's editors just going back through the story to determine what needs to be corrected or clarified? Or are they just hoping the controversy goes away?

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