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Monday, November 8, 2010

This Week's Scandal: The USDA, Cheese, and Domino's Pizza

Posted By on Mon, Nov 8, 2010 at 5:59 PM

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Yesterday, the New York Times ran a front-page story by Michael Moss about the USDA's conflicting missions. Moss revealed that the architects of a successful new Domino's pizza campaign ― the six-cheese Wisconsin pizza, one slice of which has two-thirds the recommended daily allowance of saturated fat ― to be Dairy Management, the "Got Milk?" campaign company. What's significant about that? Well, Dairy Management is funded by USDA-mandated fees, and its campaigns must be approved by the federal agency. The Wisconsin pizza is far from the only gut-busting fast-food product that Dairy Management has helped introduce to boost cheese sales:

In its reports to Congress ... the Agriculture Department tallies Dairy Management's successes in millions of pounds of cheese served. In 2007, the department highlighted Pizza Hut's Cheesy Bites pizza, Wendy's "dual Double Melt sandwich concept," and Burger King's Cheesy Angus Bacon cheeseburger and TenderCrisp chicken sandwich. "Both featured two slices of American cheese, a slice of pepper jack and a cheesy sauce," the department said.

The exposé is currently in the Times' top-five most e-mailed stories, and has the food blogs rumbling. The outrage is welcome. But the Dairy Management-Domino's story is just one tale in a longer narrative about the USDA's dissociative-identity problems. Appalling conflicts like this aren't surprising when you consider how sprawling the agency is: Among other responsibilities, the USDA distributes farming subsidies, oversees some (but not all) food safety programs, funds food stamps for the economically disadvantaged and school-lunch programs for children, promotes the export of American agricultural products domestically and abroad ― oh, and tries to improve the nutrition of Americans.

Want another example of how much the USDA really values nutrition? Compare its iconic food pyramid against a parallel (and not agency-created) "subsidy pyramid." If you read Food Politics, by superstar nutritionist Marion Nestle, you'll find that a huge chunk of the book documents the dairy industry's influence on the shape of the food pyramid and the language used in USDA nutritional guidelines. (Today, Nestle wrote a terse, and justified, "I told you so" blog post about the article.)

The question, of course, isn't whether the agency should reprioritize health over industry or get split up to prevent galling conflicts of interest. The question is whether anyone in Washington has the willpower to make the necessary changes. Michelle Obama? Yeah, didn't think so.

Follow SFoodie at @sfoodie.

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Jonathan Kauffman

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