Monday, November 8, 2010

Eat more cheese! No, wait: Eat less cheese! Like we said: Eat more cheese!

A recent report found that the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture designed and implemented a $12 million marketing campaign last year to help Domino's Pizza recover from a period of sagging sales and declining customer satisfaction. The campaign that the USDA's subsidiary organization Dairy Management designed centered on increasing the amount of cheese on Domino's pizzas. Dairy Management is one of eighteen USDA programs that exist to market agricultural products, including beef and pork; the "Got Milk?" campaign is one of Dairy Management's most well-known and successful initiatives.

Meanwhile, other USDA initiatives continued to fund research and marketing campaigns to try to convince Americans to eat less cheese as a way to sustain a more healthy diet and lower saturated fat consumption. The USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion runs on an annual budget nearly half that of the single campaign for Domino's Pizza, $6.5 million.

As part of its campaigns to increase cheese consumption generally, Dairy Management funded research to look into claims put forth in 2003 that intake of calcium would help people lose weight. By 2004, this research contradicted the weight loss claims, but Dairy Management ignored the findings and persisted for three more years with their campaign correlating calcium intake with weight loss. They only stopped their disingenuous campaign on the order of the Federal Trade Commission, which itself was finally acting on a petition brought by a physicians advocacy group two years prior.[1]

The dynamic described above seems rather contradictory and self-defeating: One USDA team is urging Americans to eat more cheese, while another, at the same time, is urging Americans to eat less cheese. To me, it's illustrative of some unfortunate aspects of American society:
    ** American society seems to be permeated by two strong, contradictory groups of people. One group strives to produce quantifiable scientific evidence to help inform considered, proactive public and private decision-making, while another group ignores any evidence that contradicts their desire for financial gain or, more generally, the perpetuation of their ideology. Other key examples of this dynamic include climate change denialism and the ridiculous birther movement (to name just a few).
    ** A large segment of Americans have a veneration for "free market" capitalism that shades into religiosity, yet they tend to take advantage of any opportunity formulate, manipulate, perpetuate, and otherwise take advantage of government policies to bolster corporations and the capitalist system. Other examples of this dynamic include the Farm Bill and the 2008 bank bailout. In other words, many advocates of "free market" capitalism exhibit a fundamental contradiction between their professed philosophy and their actions.
In returning to the example of the cheese, one might interpret this information to come to the conclusion that government is bloated and inefficient and should be de-funded, reformed, and limited (in the manner of what the Tea Baggers advocate). One might conclude that government is corrupted by corporations and should be reformed to limit the influences of corporations (in the manner of what Public Citizen advocates).

Perhaps the example of "to cheese, or not to cheese" can be seen as a clear example of an unfortunate but very real dynamic of American society: A continuing conflict between blind veneration for financial returns and the status quo in spite of solid evidence that seeks to moderate the excesses of capitalism and improve institutions to make them more inclusive and just.

[1] Michael Moss, "While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales," New York Times, Nov. 6 2010.


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