On Sunday, the NY Times published an article titled, “While Warning About Fat, US Pushes Cheese Sales.”  If you didn’t see the article, you may have come across the dozens of websites, politics and food blogs reporting on the story, many blaring ridiculously misleading headlines calling it a “bailout” for Domino’s or a “scandal.” I sat back for a couple days to see how this story unfolded before weighing in because I was curious to see how bloggers would react. Additionally, up until 4 months ago when I worked at a social media agency, Domino’s was one of my primary food & beverage clients so I played a big role in helping design its social media strategy in the past 16 months or so.

Here’s the basic gist of the NY Times story: the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) which is helping to spearhead U.S. anti-obesity efforts also oversees an organization called Dairy Management, a collective of dairy manufacturers that work to promote the increased consumption of dairy products such as cheese and milk. This organization stems from the National Dairy Checkoff, which was established in 1983 and collects a fee from dairy manufacturers on the milk they produce. This fee is then used to sponsor larger initiatives intended to increase overall sales of dairy products. Past initiatives have included partnering with the NFL and the famous Got Milk? campaign. Recent initiatives include partnering with companies such as Pizza Hut, Wendy’s, Taco Bell and Domino’s to promote the introduction of new products with large amounts of cheese.

So what’s the issue? Bloggers seem to be raising a few:  1) Tax money shouldn’t be used to promote dairy products. 2) It’s hypocritical for the government to promote cheese, which is high in fat, while advocating a low-fat diet. 3) Cheese makes you fat. 4) this is a government “bailout” or “corporate welfare” for Domino’s,  Let’s tackle these one-by-one.

1) Tax money shouldn’t be used to promote dairy products

Fair enough. I agree. In fact, I don’t think government should be used to promote or subsidize any specific foods or food products. But good luck weening American farmers (and vote-hungry Congressmen) off support from the U.S. government, which comes in the form of support for marketing initiatives, direct subsidies to farmers, tariffs on competing foreign products and setting price floors or ceilings for years when a crop is in over or under supply. The USDA oversees industry-specific collectives in addition to Dairy Management that promote other products like beef, pork, potatoes etc.

Farm subsidies and crop support in the U.S. has a decades long history of support from members of both parties and the goals are to provide year-to-year price consistency for consumers while ensuring that farming remains a viable career path for American farmers. While true libertarians would no doubt oppose any government involvement in promotion of specific food products, liberals jumping on this story should be aware that liberal lions of the Senate such as Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders are big supporters of the Dairy Checkoff program as a way to help keep small family farms in business.

Similarly, “anti-spending” Republicans from the mid-west and plains states have frequently advocated for continuing farm subsidies to help keep corn, soy or wheat farmers propped up. Ditto representatives from Florida and their support of sugar tariffs. Keep in mind that if you want the government to promote healthier eating, you, by nature of that very goal, need to allow the government to pick so called “winners and losers” – which foods they advocate people eat more of, and which they advocate people eat less of.

2) It’s hypocritical for the government to promote cheese, which is high in fat, while advocating a low-fat diet

Of course it is. But the government is riddled with hypocritical spending. Many would argue the government has no place spending any money telling Americans how to eat at all, whether it is the USDA advocating a low-fat diet or Mike Bloomberg spending money on subway ads attacking the high salt levels in soup. Atkins diet supporters would argue that carbs, not fat are the biggest issue for Americans and it’s misguided for the USDA to focus on promoting a low-fat diet. Not to mention that if you want to provide support for small dairy farmers, you can’t do it without letting them sell their higher-fat products.

It’s funny that some of the people jumping on this story seem to be liberal foodies from the wine & cheese crowd. As these folks munch on their gourmet French cheeses while looking down their noses at the disgusting fat mass of Americans, they might be interested to learn that while France has a public-private National Nutrition and Health program, they simultaneously promote the purchase and increased consumption of French cheese through the French Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. Oh, and these initiatives use a much higher percentage of government  vs. private money than any of these programs in the U.S. You might also be interested to know that an ounce of brie has more fat than an ounce of the whole-milk mozzarella that would traditionally be used on a pizza. Plus, those American cheese “singles” you look down at with disdain? 1/4th the fat per ounce compared to brie.

3) Cheese makes you fat

No it doesn’t. Even eating a lot of cheese will not make you fat.  You’re only going to gain weight and get fat if you consistently eat more calories than you burn. If those calories come from cheese, potatoes, corn, wheat, it doesn’t matter, you are going to gain weight. Look at the story this week of the so-called “Twinkie diet” where a nutrition professor lost 27 pounds in 2 months eating almost nothing but Twinkies, Oreos, Hostess cupcakes and Doritos.  But, but, but…he must have gotten less healthy while losing weight right? Well, not exactly. His body fat dropped from 33.4 to 24.9 percent while his bad cholesterol went down 20% and his good cholesterol went up 20%. What you eat is important, but how much of it you eat is far more important.

4) This is a government “bailout” or “corporate welfare” for Domino’s

The organization in question, Dairy Management spent $12 million to help promote Domino’s new pizzas with 40% more cheese. Its job, no, its whole MISSION and reason for existing is to increase sales of dairy products, so why is it surprising they would want consumers to eat pizza with more cheese? It’s not. It’s not surprising at all. That’s just them doing their job. The most accurate breakdown of this organization’s roll in this story can be found in this post on Year of Plenty, Newsflash: Dairy Industry Wants You to Eat More Dairy – What’s So Controversial About That? Domino’s sells pizza, a huge component of which is cheese. Dairy Management advocates Americans eat more cheese. It’s a natural fit and partnership. This isn’t any different than Shrek 3 partnering with McDonald’s to help pay for McDonald’s ads that promote kids meals with Shrek toys.

Dairy Management has a total budget of $140 million, and according to the NY Times receives “several million” a year from the Agriculture Department.  Except the money it received from the Agriculture Department ($5.3 million for the year in question) went to the US Dairy Export Council, which promotes American cheese oversees and has no involvement in any domestic initiatives like the one with Domino’s, which are funded through contributions by domestic dairy farmers and manufacturers.

So when Slice reports in its headline that “USDA Warns Against Fat While Funding Domino’s Campaign” they are simply wrong on the facts, since the USDA did not provide any funding to Domino’s or its advertising campaign. When American Pundit writes “Federal Government Helps Dominos Sell Pizzas, Uses Tax Dollars to Push Dairy Products” or BigThink writes that “The U.S. Department of Agriculture is spending millions of tax dollars to help companies like Domino’s Pizza” they are factually incorrect. Sure, the government uses money that could be seen as “pushing” dairy products, but they didn’t give any money to the Domino’s campaign in question.

Kerry Trueman of Eating Liberally trumpeted the “bailout” phrase in her coverage on Civil Eats and Huffington Post. Trueman laughably compares Domino’s to Goldman Sachs, Citibank, Fannie Mae, Bank of America, and AIG, all entities that were saved from bankruptcy by an infusion of government money. In fact, the very definition of “bailout” is receiving money from the government. There’s just one problem: as we’ve already established, Domino’s didn’t receive any money from the government. So calling it a “bailout” is simply not true. If there is any sort of “bailout” being provided here for Domino’s, it’s one funded by the dairy industry. Which, besides being  wrong by definition (since its not government money) is a bit silly. Dairy manufacturers want to sell more cheese. Domino’s sells a product for which cheese is a primary ingredient. If Domino’s and the dairy industry want to team up to help share marketing costs in an effort to increase sales for both parties, that’s not called a bailout, that’s called a smart business arrangement with mutual benefits.

If liberals like Trueman want to advocate for an end to farm subsidies and the government encouraged/funded promotion of products from American farmers such as milk and cheese, I’m all for it. But if these types of programs are ended, farms WILL go bankrupt and people WILL lose jobs. That’s fine if you are ok with letting the free market takeover and seeing those jobs re-allocated elsewhere based on the whims of  supply and demand. So I’d like to point out once again that there is a reason the biggest supporters of these programs, particularly with regards to the dairy industry in general, are liberals. Good, honest, hardworking liberal Congressmen and Senators who want to keep farms in their state from going bankrupt and provide an actual livable wage for small family farmers. To do so though, means letting these farmers sell whole milk to be used to make high-fat cheeses.

Final Thoughts

This is a great debate to be having but lets make sure we’re reporting on everything honestly and accurately. Domino’s didn’t get a “bailout” or even receive any money from the government. They partnered with dairy manufacturers to attempt a mutually beneficial marketing campaign. Another thing? Both parties got their money’s worth. Domino’s sold more pizzas and the dairy industry sold more cheese.

Volokh Conspiracy was more accurate and had less hyperbole in their write-up than some of the blogs I mentioned above, and concludes the post by writing:

If Republicans are looking for budget items to cut, this would seem to be an obvious choice.  It’s not much, but every little bit helps.

Agreed. We are facing a budget crisis of epic proportions that if we are honest with ourselves, will require us to raise taxes, cut entitlements & defense and thoroughly review all domestic programs for wasteful spending. Not drastically cutting or eliminating almost all food, farm, crop and agriculture subsidies would be a missed opportunity for taxpayer savings. But lets keep in mind that these are tough choices with real consequences. There is a reason liberals support this sort of government support for farmers and why other countries like France do the same thing. Cutting government support for promoting exports will hurt sales overseas and will undoubtedly cause some farms to go bankrupt and U.S. jobs to be lost. If stories like this one can galvanize liberals to call for government spending like this to be cut, then great. But I’m not keeping my fingers crossed.

15 Responses

  1. Nick (Macheesmo)

    Really thoughtful article man. I think I agree with everything you say.

    I also find it ridiculous that people are focusing so much on this strange hypocrisy in the gov when in the grand scheme of gov hypocrisies, it’s pretty damn small.

    I’m always torn on farming subsidies. I think that they are a good idea, but I wish they were given for crops across the board and not just for corn/soybeans/etc. I’m pretty sure broccoli farmers get kinda screwed on the deal.

    If you’re going to pick a winner, I’m not sure that’s the one I would pick.

    Reply
  2. Sam

    What really gets me is that back in the ’80s the government kept all the excess fat from skim milk in caves in Missouri. I mean…what? This gives me the irrepressible urge to draw comparisons between cheese and nuclear warheads.

    Reply
  3. Peggy

    Great write up here. I hadn’t heard much on all of this, but thanks for breaking it all down! Definitely much clearer now!

    Reply
  4. keegan

    One question.
    How does one distinguish the routing of funds? It’s impossible to say that the USDA’s funding that year didn’t go to the Domino’s campaign, because without the funding, perhaps the budget of Dairy Management would have been different.

    If I have 10 bucks in the bank, I’m not going to spend 2 on a hot dog, but if my mom gives me 2 bucks to add to my 10, I just might indulge.

    Reply

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