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The Government-Industry Conspiracy that Promotes Crap Food in School

Industry and government work together to promote everything from fast-food pizza to sugary milk in schools.

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People often ask me, “How does lobbying work?” Last week it was with fat and sugar, when the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) hosted its 32nd annual Capitol Hill Ice Cream Party. Some 6,000 bowls of ice cream were served up to Sen. Tom Harkin, Reps. Pete Sessions, Robert Aderholt, Jeff Denham, John Shimkus, Ron Kind and Lamar Smith, among others, according to  Politico.

Dairy lobbyists are ever present in Washington, and their efforts usually pay off. For example, last year when the IDFA  implored the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to give dairy foods a pass in the new snack food guidelines for schools, the agency  capitulated, opening school doors to even  more junk food, such as  YoCrunch Lowfat Yogurt with M&Ms.

This is just one of many examples I uncovered in a report I published last month, " Whitewashed: How Industry and Government Promote Dairy Junk Foods" (PDF). The dairy industry, propped up by government, has convinced us of the health benefits of milk and other dairy products. The assumption that eating dairy is essential to the diet has obstructed our ability to criticize federal government support for unhealthy dairy products, of which there are many.

One of the most important forms of government support is the federally mandated collection of industry fees for  checkoff programs that promote milk and dairy.

According to the  USDA, checkoff programs use industry funds “to increase the success of the businesses and farmers within their industry.” The idea is to pool resources in an agricultural sector to gain greater access to research and marketing.

Checkoff money is supposed to be used for  generic marketing activities that promote dairy products and consumption. But in actuality the program gives a huge boost to leading fast food chains. For example, McDonald’s has six employees at its corporate headquarters who are dedicated to the dairy checkoff program and work to ensure that dairy plays an important role in McDonald’s product development. The program  helped Taco Bell introduce its double steak quesadillas and cheese shreds, which resulted in a 4 percent increase in the chain’s dairy sales. It helped Pizza Hut develop its 3-Cheese Stuffed Crust Pizza and the Summer of Cheese ad campaign. Domino’s  benefited from a $35 million partnership with the program, which resulted in the company’s using more cheese, with other pizza makers  following its lead. Domino’s Smart Slice program brought its pizza to more than 2,000 schools in 2011, with help from — you guessed it —  the checkoff program.

Schools are especially vulnerable to dairy industry influence. With the recent  controversy over the sugar content of what the industry euphemistically calls flavored milk, marketers are desperate to maintain this lucrative market and captive audience. The USDA-supported milk checkoff program (fluid milk has a checkoff program separate from dairy products such as cheese and ice cream) promotes campaigns — such as  Chocolate Milk Has Muscle and Raise Your Hand for Chocolate Milk — that tout the nutritional benefits of flavored milk. Milk checkoff educational materials and other forms of industry pressure have even been used to  change the minds of some school officials who wanted to remove flavored milk.

Both the industry and government  defend the dairy checkoff program by saying it’s paid for by farmers. While technically true, the federal government oversees and approves almost every aspect of the program. Far from being just a privately funded program, USDA employees attend checkoff meetings, monitor activities and are responsible for evaluation of the programs. The U.S. Supreme Court has even  upheld the legality of the checkoff programs as “government speech,” finding that “the message ... is controlled by the federal government.”

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