Cheese Promotion Curdles USDA’s Reputation as Public Health Protector

By Gillian Grissom, staff editor

Even if you’re only an occasional television viewer, I doubt you’ve missed the ubiquitous Domino’s Pizza commercials promoting its new, improved specialty pizza recipes. Perhaps you’ve even noticed the “New Wisconsin 6 Cheese” offering, the newest member of its “Legends” line?

What I’m sure you did miss, however, is the fact that a typical serving of this new recipe contains about three-quarters of the maximum recommended daily amount of saturated fat. And two-thirds of the maximum recommended sodium intake.

Of course, a typical pizza pie’s less-than-optimal nutritional profile is old news. But what makes this new, extra-cheesy menu item newsworthy is that, according to an article in Saturday’s New York Times, it is the product of a recent $12 million campaign based on guidance from its marketing advisor, Dairy Management. Which is an arm of the United States Department of Agriculture. Yes, that’s right, the same agency that devises recommendations for nutritious meal planning and obesity prevention measures.

This strikes me as absolutely incongruous. How can a federal agency that Americans look to for nutrition advice also support efforts to increase access to inappropriately large amounts of full-fat cheese, an ingredient that nutritionists agree should be eaten only in moderation?

The Times reported that Dairy Management has also helped Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Burger King incorporate more saturated fat-laden cheese into their already nutritionally questionable menu items. This cheese fest is meant to repurpose all the whole milk and extracted milk fat that remains after the dairy industry meets consumer demand for non- and low-fat milk products, therefore supporting farmer profits. According to the fast food companies who work with Dairy Management, sales of their cheesiest fare are going gangbusters.

Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against cheese, or against the dairy farmers who produce it. I’d be the last person to turn down a good hunk of sharp cheddar if the opportunity presented itself. But is it fair for the USDA to promote such overconsumption of cheese just to spare dairy farmers the pain of losses due to surplus product? Especially given the rampant obesity rates that can in part be attributed to zealous saturated fat consumption across the US?

It seems that a reevaluation of existing dairy production levels might be a more appropriate way to mitigate farmer losses. Or, if the farmers must sell the surplus milk fat, to engage a consultant separate from a nutrition-oriented federal agency. Bottom line: the USDA should quit the cheesy gimmicks and start acting in the health interests of the public it’s supposed to protect.

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