Americans are eating more cheese than ever, and a little-known organization called Dairy Management couldn't be happier about it. Dairy Management, as The New York Times reported in a much-discussed exposé, is a nonprofit devoted to marketing cheese as part of a balanced diet. But the group works closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the very agency in charge of promoting a healthy lifestyle to Americans — and experts agree eating massive amounts of cheese is not healthy. How can the government be peddling high-fat foods while simultaneously fighting against them? Here's a brief guide to the odd agenda behind America's cheese obsession:
What exactly is Dairy Management?
It's a "marketing creation" of the Agriculture Department, launched in 1995 to get Americans to consume more dairy products. The organization is "largely financed by a government-mandated fee on the dairy industry," but it also receives millions a year from the Department of Agriculture, which picks some of its board members, approves its marketing campaigns, and gives Congress updates on its work. Over the years, Dairy Management has grown into a marketing powerhouse with 162 employees skilled in the art of product development (It's behind the popular "Got Milk?" ad campaign). It has an annual budget of nearly $140 million, compared to $6.5 million for the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, which promotes low-fat diets.
What does Dairy Management do?
These days, it focus is aggressively marketing cheese. It works especially closely with fast-food chains; for instance in 2007, it plugged Pizza Hut's Cheesy Bites pizza, Wendy's "dual Double Melt sandwich concept," and Burger King's Cheesy Angus Bacon cheeseburger. It also helps to make sure grocery stores around the country stock plenty of cheese. Thanks in part to Dairy Management's efforts, American cheese consumption has skyrocketed in recent years, as Treehugger illustrates. The average American consumes nearly 33 pounds per year — triple the rate in 1970.
Shouldn't the government be happy about that?
It's certainly a sign that the plan to get Americans to buy more dairy products is working. But while Dairy Management was pushing cheese highlighting, among other things, a study purportedly linking cheese to weight loss (although no proof of a connection was ever found), the Department of Agriculture was warning Americans about cheese's fatty properties. In a more specific example that the government is fighting on both sides of the cheese war, the Department of Agriculture explicitly urged pizza enthusiasts to "Ask for whole wheat crust and half the cheese," while Dairy Management was working closely with Domino's and other pizza chains to make their products cheesier than ever.
So is eating cheese healthy or not?
When consumed in excess, cheese can be pretty bad for you. Data provided by — who else — the Department of Agriculture — shows that cheese is one of the main reasons the average American diet contains too much saturated fat. The department has urged people to eat cheese in moderation — avoiding piling on big portions — to fit cheese into a healthy, low-fat diet. But since the department measures the effectiveness of Dairy Management's promotional programs in millions of pounds of cheese served, moderation doesn't seem to be the name of the game.
Then why is the government funding this?
"This sort of conflict of interest go way back, says Kerry Trueman at The Huffington Post. Years ago, "dairy lobbying groups, aided and abetted by the USDA, convinced nutritionists that dairy foods were equivalent to essential nutrients and the only reliable source of dietary calcium." Another reason for the intense promotion: Excess supply of milk fat. Every day, American cows produce 60 million gallons of raw milk, but "less than a third goes toward making milk that people drink," and even the drinkable milk is stripped of fat for health-conscious consumers. Rather than let a huge store of discarded milk and fat go to waste, the government seems to prefer to make sure somebody makes money from it.