Agriculture Dept. assailed for promoting fatty foods while pushing healthy diets

Saying Cheese

October 23, 2003|By Andrew Martin | Andrew Martin,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON-When Pizza Hut unveiled its "Summer of Cheese" campaign last year, the fast-food chain had help from a surprising source: the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The National Dairy Promotion and Research Board, which is appointed by and overseen by the USDA, provided consumer research and "menu development expertise" to Pizza Hut to create two of its most popular and cheesiest pizzas, the "Stuffed Crust Pizza" and "The Insider."

"We helped Pizza Hut develop those pizzas, so we made sure they use a lot of cheese," Paul Rovey, then the board's chairman, said during its annual meeting last year. "Well, look what happened. The `Summer of Cheese' at Pizza Hut moved 100 million pounds of cheese."

Now that the USDA is again rewriting the Food Guide Pyramid and dietary guidelines that recommend what Americans should eat, some critics question whether an agency that so heavily subsidizes and promotes commodities produced by U.S. farmers - including cheese, sugar and tobacco - should also decide the nation's nutrition policy.

"The primary mission of the USDA is, after all, to promote the sale of agricultural products," Republican Sen. Peter G. Fitzgerald of Illinois said during a hearing last month in which he announced legislation to end the department's role in writing dietary advice. "So putting the USDA in charge of dietary advice is in some respects like putting the fox in charge of the hen house."

Fitzgerald argued that oversight of the Food Guide Pyramid, and the more detailed and lesser-known Dietary Guidelines for Americans, should be moved to the Department of Health and Human Services, which he said is "less likely to be cozy with farm groups and the food companies."

Fitzgerald is not the only one making this point about the USDA.

"The USDA clearly has a conflict of interest," said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition advocacy group founded by supporters of Ralph Nader. "USDA doesn't want to offend any sector of the agriculture industry. Nutrition advocates should be encouraging people to eat less meat, to eat less cheese and sugar. It's tough for the USDA to say those things."

The Food Guide Pyramid, which appears on numerous food packages, is being revised for the first time since 1992, when it was unveiled to replace the pie chart of basic food groups. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which serve as the basis for federal nutrition policy, are revised every five years.

Although Fitzgerald's proposal received a chilly reception on Capitol Hill, it reignited an argument that some nutritionists have been making for years and that has taken on added significance because of growing concerns about obesity.

"This is a long historical issue," said New York University nutritionist Marion Nestle, whose recent book Food Politics criticizes the food industry's influence on the government nutrition programs. "[The USDA's] purpose from the beginning was to promote agricultural products. When Americans were malnourished, that was a great idea."

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans govern such programs as school lunches and are supposed to serve as an official, neutral expression of the healthiest way to eat. The guidelines are revised by the secretary of agriculture and the secretary of health and human services, based on the recommendations of a panel of academics.

The Food Guide Pyramid, which has influenced the diet of millions of Americans, is being reworked by the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.

Eric Hentges, director of the center, argued that the department should remain central to the process of writing nutritional advice because its expertise complements the Department of Health and Human Service's knowledge of public health.

Hentges disputed the assertion that the USDA's primary mission is to trumpet U.S. farm products. Instead, he said, the agency's role is to provide "a safe, affordable, nutritious food supply."

Before being hired at the USDA in February, Hentges spent more than 15 years working for the meat industry, most recently for the National Pork Board.

The department's Agricultural Marketing Services oversees controversial industry check-off programs that require producers to set aside a small portion of each sale, which a USDA-picked board then uses for generic promotion and ads.

Approved by Congress and supervised by board members appointed by the agriculture secretary, check-off programs fund the promotion of everything from watermelon to beef to honey to cheese. USDA officials point out that the check-off programs are funded entirely by industry, but Nestle describes them as "federally sanctioned and administered public relations enterprises to benefit certain food commodities."

Producers who don't want to participate in the mandatory programs have challenged check-offs in court, arguing that they violate free speech by forcing smaller producers to participate in a program that they believe favors their larger competitors. Although some courts have agreed that the programs are unconstitutional, the USDA has appealed and the programs have continued pending a resolution.

Yesterday a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled against one of those appeals involving the pork check-off, saying the lower court was correct to end the program "in its entirety." The pork check-off collects about $54 million a year and was instrumental in drafting the slogan "The Other White Meat."

The beef check-off collects about $80 million a year for promotion. It has used the money to help coin the slogan "Beef: It's What's for Dinner."

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