The Politics of Meat and Dairy:
How Big Business Influences Government Policy and Our Food Choices

by Michele Simon
Originally published in the EarthSave Newsmagazine, Fall 1998.

More and more information is available all the time about the various health benefits of a plant-based diet. Among the many resources are national and local organizations, books by medical doctors and nutritionists, a plethora of cookbooks and several specialty magazines. But where does our most influential institution — the federal government — stand when it comes to nutrition policy? Pretty much where it did 30 years ago, when interest into the causes of chronic diseases and their prevention was on the rise. Yet despite all that was known then, and has been learned since, about the deleterious health effects of a meat-centered diet, government nutrition policies have remained largely unchanged. While some small gains have been made — such as the transition from the "Basic Four" food groups to the Food Guide Pyramid — progress has been painfully slow.

While the reasons for government's inability to keep in step with known scientific evidence are varied and complex, one federal agency that clearly deserves much of the responsibility is the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Originally created to support and promote farmers' interests, the USDA has also taken on the role of advocating consumer interests, through food assistance programs and by setting nutrition standards. This dual mandate creates an inherent conflict of interest that explains why the meat and dairy industries continue to wield tremendous influence over government policies, and why Americans are not told the whole truth about their food choices.

Commodity Foods: The Great Government Bailout
It's no secret that our taxpayer dollars are hard at work promoting the meat and dairy industries. In May, the USDA Secretary Dan Glickman proudly announced that his agency had purchased 8 million pounds of beef and pork commodities at a cost of approximately $9 million. These purchases are part of the USDA's $30 million pork and $30 million beef bonus annual buyouts. At the same time, the USDA announced plans to purchase up to $8 million of lamb products to offset that industry's surplus. "These bonus buys support the livestock industries by bolstering producer prices," said Glickman in the announcement. The beef, pork and lamb are to be distributed to the National School Lunch Program and other food assistance programs to increase their stocks of "high-quality protein" items.

Dairy farmers also benefit from the USDA's generous bailouts. Typically, the USDA purchases 73 million pounds of cheese annually to help boost sagging dairy prices. With dairy prices falling about 30 percent in 1996, a number of U.S. senators and representatives asked Glickman to help the dairy industry by purchasing large amounts of cheese for use in the 1997 "school feeding programs."

The fishing industry is an equal beneficiary of the USDA largesse. As recently as August 27, 1998, the agency announced a $10 million purchase of salmon products from the 1998 harvest to help reduce excess supplies and support the Alaskan salmon industry. About 80 percent of that purchase is planned for the distribution of salmon to emergency food assistance programs. But the USDA has other plans for getting salmon into school lunches. According to a report in 1994, kids rejected the odd salmon products fed to them in school cafeterias. Lunchroom workers noted that the fishy smell in the air during cooking drove away customers. Nevertheless, the USDA is still determined to continue dumping salmon on schools. In this recent buyout, $1 million worth of salmon nuggets will be distributed to the National School Lunch Program based upon testing done last year which yielded favorable responses from students and food service personnel. Apparently, the USDA's solution to get kids to eat unpopular products is to "nuggetize" them, the theory being that a kid will eat anything if you hide it in enough greasy batter.

It is quite disturbing that the government can justify supporting these industries that engage in poor management and unsustainable business practices by dumping their unhealthy food products on those individuals unable to choose — children and the poor.

The National School Lunch Program and the Politics of Fat
The USDA's reach into the nutritional needs of Americans is far and wide. The agency is responsible for 15 distinct food assistance programs, serving one in six Americans, including The National School Lunch Program, the Nutrition Program for the Elderly, the Homeless Children Nutrition Program and the Special Milk Program. Unfortunately, the USDA's dual role to also promote agribusiness results in many of these programs becoming pawns of the meat and dairy industries.

The origins of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) date back to 1946, when Congress' goal was not only to promote good nutrition, but also to support farmers by providing more markets for the excess food they produced. This dual purpose explains much about why the NSLP has failed miserably to provide school children with nutritious lunches. The government supports the NSLP through purchases of commodity food items, which schools depend upon heavily, typically comprising 20 percent of the foods they serve. And many of these foods are the unhealthy meats and cheeses gained from the USDA's industry bailout system. But why doesn't the government simply support industries that could provide schools with healthier alternatives?

Jennifer Raymond, M.S., a nutritionist, author and chef who has been trying for several years to get soy protein approved by the USDA for school lunches, tells an interesting tale of politics and greed. In the summer of 1996, prior to the fall elections, the USDA was just about to adopt a new regulation that would have made schools' use of soy protein 100 percent reimbursable. The regulation was inexplicably shelved. Then, last May, Raymond met with USDA officials along with a small group representing the soy industry in an attempt to persuade the agency to release the previously stalled soy protein reimbursement regulation. Raymond described the scene: "After we had all made our pitches, one of the USDA aides asked, 'Have you met with the cattlemen? You know you need to do your homework and meet with them, because unless they approve this, we can't.' I was blown away! I mean, we all know who's really in charge, but to have him come right out and say it was mind-boggling! Most people have no idea about the money and politics behind the food that's served in the school cafeterias around the country." That a USDA official would openly admit to the unfettered power of the meat industry over a major food assistance program is disturbing evidence indeed of the high stakes involved in the politics of food in this country.

The Politics of Nutrition Advice and the Food Guide Pyramid
The infamous "Food Guide Pyramid" is technically part of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, intended to symbolize its basic messages and convey relative amounts of recommended foods. The path from the old "Basic Four" food guide to the current Food Guide Pyramid model for "healthy eating" was, not surprisingly, politically charged. Back in 1988, based on mounting nutrition research, the USDA began redrawing its food chart. Obviously any schematic which deviated from giving meat and dairy products equal weight with other foods would be objectionable to those industries. As a result, they were kept largely in the dark throughout the planning stages. Apparently, though, so was the USDA Secretary at the time, Edward Madigan. According one account, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) is at least partially responsible for the political firestorm that ensued. PCRM asked the USDA to replace the "Basic Four" food guide with their "New Four Food Groups" — all plant-based. The press got wind of this angle and a story ran in the Washington Post just prior to the scheduled release of the pyramid, quoting eager USDA staffers on their version, and contrasting with PCRM's food guide. In a meeting the very next day, meat and dairy industry representatives went ballistic on Secretary Madigan, who in turn became quite upset with how the situation was handled by his staff. Those close to the secretary said they had never seen him so angry - reportedly "livid." Madigan retreated, calling off the release, under the guise of it needing more testing. One year, one day and slightly less than $1 million later, on April 28, 1992, the Food Guide Pyramid was released, with minor changes. Ironically, if not for this ballyhoo, the Food Guide Pyramid might have been announced without much fanfare and faded into relative obscurity. Instead, it got tremendous press and every nutritionist in the country knows about it.

Federal Farm Promotion Programs
Over the past 30 years, Congress has enacted legislation explicitly authorizing the USDA to administer national generic promotion programs for 20 separate farm commodities, including meat and dairy products, as well as fruits and vegetables. Commonly known as "check-off" programs, all major producers are required to pay an assessment tied to each unit they market. The USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service does incur some administrative costs, but these are reimbursed by industry. While a variety of commodity products participate, the larger and richer meat and dairy industries clearly benefit the most. According to a 1996 congressional report, funds collected for the most recent years available included: Beef: $82 million (1986); Pork: $41 million (1986); Eggs: $15 million (1976); Dairy Products: $230 million (1984); Fluid Milk: $53 million (1993).

Of Mustaches and Dairy Propaganda
The ubiquitous dairy industry "milk mustache" campaign began in 1996 with a budget of $110 million, increasing to $190 million in 1998. The marketing mission in the first year was to attack four misconceptions about milk: that it's fat-laden and unhealthy (never mind the truth); that it's old-fashioned (forget about progress); that it's only for kids (cow kids, perhaps); and that it's good only as an accompaniment for high-fat foods like cookies (better with salad?). The force behind this campaign is the USDA-administered National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Board, which was created to strengthen the dairy industry's market position. According to a 1996 USDA report, the program is quite successful. Generic advertising, of which the milk mustache campaign is an example, raised fluid milk sales an estimated 1 billion pounds, or 4.4 percent, in one year alone. And it's no coincidence that the USDA's major food assistance programs, such school lunches, require that milk be served.

More recently, government promotion of this commercial product has become even more obvious, with the milk mustache campaign expanding beyond celebrities to government officials — right up to the president himself. Can you imagine Secretary of Human Health and Services (HHS) Donna Shalala doing ads for Coke or McDonalds? And yet log onto the web site, and hers is the first "mustache" you see. Plus, her ads are running in major magazines such as Health, with a circulation of over 1 million. While some consumer groups have questioned this blatant government promotion, an HHS spokesperson defended the ad, saying no money was accepted and no ethics rules were breached. How comforting. And what a coup for a huge industry to get the president and the highest-ranking government health official to endorse its product for free.

Agricultural Marketing and Research Grants
Yet another way the USDA supports the meat and dairy industries is through cash grants. On June 16, 1998, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman announced $500,000 in awards to seven states to develop a wide range of projects for improving the marketing and distribution of agricultural products. While much of the money did go to plant-based projects, two meat-promoting grants were: 1) $68,161 to the Texas Department of Agriculture, in cooperation with Texas A&M University, to assess opportunities for cooperation among small Texas meat processing plants to expand the processed meat market; and 2) $70,300 to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, in cooperation with the University of Wisconsin, to identify marketing opportunities for "healthier" red meats, including farm-raised deer, elk, bison and ratite (emu and ostrich) in the natural, health and gourmet food marketplace. These grants represent a disturbing trend of our tax dollars going towards government-industry partnerships to support questionable practices.

Corporate Influences on Congress: The Buck Stops Here
Corporate influence is not limited to government agencies such as the USDA. Over the past decade, the food industry gave Congress over $41 million in campaign contributions. More than a third of that money went to members of Senate and House agricultural committees. During this same period, industry made the following congressional campaign contributions:

  • the meat and poultry industry combined: over $9 million
  • the National Restaurant Association: over $3.1 million
  • the National Cattlemen's Beef Association: over $1.4 million
  • the McDonald's Corporation: close to $1.7 million

A Call for Change
Having the same government agency charged with educating Americans about healthy eating also promoting industry interests is an obvious conflict of interest and explains in large part why the American public is not being told the entire truth about the nutritional value of its food choices. Big business has much at stake when it comes to maintaining the status quo. Until the USDA is reorganized to split these two competing interests, the American public will continue to be fed misinformation and unhealthy foods, resulting in ongoing high rates of chronic disease and related suffering. On the other hand, if consumers rise up and demand that government be made accountable to the people it is supposed to be serving, perhaps then we can begin the necessary changes towards improving nutrition policy in this country.