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USDA Role In Food Pyramid Criticized
Chicago Tribune | October 14, 2003
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 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," the board's then-chairman, Paul Rovey, 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 plunging once again into the process of 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," Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.) 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 henhouse."
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."
The USDA isn't the only federal agency that has been accused of a conflict of interest. Environmentalists have contended that various presidential administrations, including the current one, allow industry to hijack environmental regulations. More specifically, the Federal Aviation Administration has been accused of a conflict for promoting and regulating the aviation industry.
But none of the other agencies is telling people what to eat.
Fitzgerald is not alone in making this point about the USDA.
"The USDA clearly has a conflict of interest," said Michael 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 many 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, the basis for federal nutrition policy, are revised every five years.
Guide vs. cheerleader
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. While the USDA oversees some nutrition programs, the critics argue, those efforts have always been dwarfed by its role as a cheerleader for U.S. agribusiness.
"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."
But now that overconsumption is a major problem, Nestle said, the USDA's mission of promoting agricultural products and nutrition is "schizophrenic."
Dan Glickman, secretary of agriculture under President Bill Clinton, said it does not matter whether dietary advice is under the umbrella of the USDA or another federal agency as long as the people in charge are focused on nutrition.
"The interest groups will always try to interfere with the process," Glickman said recently. "The fact is, if you have people who are engaged and looking at the big picture, you can protect the interest groups from interfering."
The USDA is playing a central role in the revision of the dietary guidelines and food pyramid.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans govern programs such as school lunches and are supposed to be 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.
Rebuilding the pyramid
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 writing nutritional advice because its expertise complements the Department of Health and Human Service's knowledge of public health.
"What the Agriculture Department brings forth in that partnership is that knowledge of everything from production to processing," Hentges said. "I would say that that partnership advances us on what needs to be done, what kinds of foods need to be provided."
Hentges disputed the assertion that the USDA's primary mission is to trumpet U.S. farm products, saying the agency's role is to provide "a safe, affordable, nutritious food supply."
Before being hired at the USDA last February, Hentges spent more than 15 years working for the meat industry, most recently the National Pork Board. His ties to the meat industry have raised concerns among nutritionists about his objectivity. Hentges said his experience is an asset because he tried to find ways to make meat fit into a healthy lifestyle.
Following the money
Critics say the way the USDA spends its money reflects the agency's priorities.
The USDA provides Hentges with 28 employees and $2.8 million a year to administer nutrition programs--which includes developing nutrition policies, evaluating the nutrient content of the food supply and publishing the twice-yearly Family Economic Nutrition Review.
By contrast, the agency spends billions helping farmers produce food, and millions more encouraging people to eat it.
The USDA doles out about $19 billion in subsidies to farmers every year, for everything from corn and cotton to sunflowers and sorghum. Some of that money goes to commodities that most nutritionists warn should be used in moderation or not at all.
From 2000 through 2002, the USDA doled out $299 million in subsidies to sugar farmers, according to the not-for-profit Environmental Working Group. During the same period, the USDA paid $479 million to tobacco farmers.
Meanwhile, the department's Foreign Agricultural Service has a $6 billion yearly budget to champion farm products abroad, and Agricultural Marketing Service spends about $297 million for functions such as grading domestic commodities and helping market them.
Agricultural Marketing Services also oversees controversial industry checkoff programs that require producers to set aside a small portion of each sale that a USDA-selected board then uses for generic promotions and advertising.
Approved by Congress and supervised by board members appointed by the agriculture secretary, checkoff programs fund the promotion of everything from watermelon to beef to honey to cheese. USDA officials say the checkoff 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 checkoffs 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, those rulings have been appealed, and the programs are continuing until the litigation is resolved, a USDA spokeswoman said.
Dollars for slogans
The beef checkoff, for example, 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" and recently provided funding for a touring "Beefmobile." The program also lent its logo and endorsement to Domino's Pizza for the introduction of its Philly Cheese Steak Pizza.
The pork checkoff, meanwhile, collects about $60 million a year and was instrumental in drafting the famous slogan "The Other White Meat."
The dairy and milk promotion programs, with a combined annual budget of about $200 million, fund the milk mustache ad campaign ("Got Milk?") and help fast-food chains develop cheesier pizzas, quesadillas and cheeseburgers, including Wendy's Cheddar Lovers' Bacon Cheeseburger.
The Dairy Board "assisted Wendy's with the development of this cheese-friendly sandwich in 1999," the board's annual report says.
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