Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us
Author:Moss, Michael

In one respect, it’s hard to blame the USDA for pulling its punches on meat and cheese. Long ago, the manufacturers of processed foods, having identified the agency’s nutritional guide as a key battleground, devoted considerable resources to influencing the 2010 panel before their work even started. USDA records show that seven of the panel’s thirteen members were nominated by the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association. The members I interviewed all vouched for their independence, but the association—in its nomination letters to the USDA—made its position clear: If the panel was going to be talking about healthier diets, it needed “to include expertise and perspective related to food product development,” and thus, it needed members who understood the industry’s needs and challenges. For instance, one of its nominees, Roger A. Clemens, was the associate director of regulatory science in the School of Pharmacy at the University of Southern California, but earlier in his career he had spent twenty-one years developing products for Nestlé, which gave him, he told me, a deep appreciation for matters like the essential role that salt plays in shielding processed food from harmful bacteria.?

At the same time, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, whose members include Kraft, Kellogg, Nestlé, PepsiCo, and almost every other major manufacturer of processed foods—more than three hundred companies in all—joined other food industry groups and individual companies in pressing the panel to tread lightly in considering their big concerns, especially salt, sugar, and fat. This lobbying took the form of letters and supporting documentation submitted to the panel, through which the companies sought to challenge the panel’s assessment of the health risks posed by these additives. The food manufacturers also recited the hurdles they face in reducing their own dependence, such as the diminished texture and taste in cereal with decreased sugar or fat loads.

This intense lobbying effort went on for months, with hundreds of submissions to the USDA, but a single day’s mail, July 15, 2010, provides a representative view of the war over fat that was waged by consumer and manufacturer alike. The typical consumer’s view was voiced by Bonnie Matlow, a librarian from Shepherdsville, Kentucky, who also happened to be diabetic. “It is a shame entire generations have lost the ability to cook a good meal from local ingredients,” she wrote to the panel, “because money was shifted to corporate farms to underwrite the growing of energy dense, nutritionally deficient grains that require supplementation to justify its inclusion in the guidelines, unpronounceable preservatives to last on the shelf, and sugar/HFCS [high-fructose corn syrup] to be palatable.”

That same day, a 17-page letter arrived from the USDA’s other, more monied constituency. The sender said he represented an industry with $2.1 trillion in annual sales, 14 million jobs, and $1 trillion in “added value to the nation’s economy.” It was from the Grocery Manufacturers Association, and it started off with a gripe: “We find that the Dietary Guideline Advisory Committee report repeatedly suggests that Americans would benefit from consuming less processed foods. This supposition is not science-based, discounts the value of the U.S. food supply, and perpetuates a misguided belief that processed foods are inherently nutrient poor.” To the contrary, the association said, food processing allowed for a huge variety of fortified, convenient foods to be eaten year-round. The association then did its best to persuade the panel from being any more specific if it did persist in urging Americans to eat fewer processed foods. (In a separate letter written three months earlier, the association had said, “There are no inherent ‘good foods’ or ‘bad foods,’ ” and it reiterated this notion that better nutrition was instead a matter of total diet.)

The GMA also spent more than a page of its letter arguing against the panel’s move to lower the recommended daily maximum for saturated fat, saying, among other things, that the previous, higher limit was easier to achieve and thus “more consumer friendly.” But while the manufacturers ultimately lost on this matter when the panel held firm and lowered the rate, they pointed out that the change posed little real threat to them. Merely lowering the maximum limit without offering specific advice on how to accomplish this would do nothing to alter America’s eating habits. “Reducing saturated fat intake from 10 percent to 7 percent is an abstract concept to consumers,” the association told the panel.

Trekking out to Virginia to lobby the Department of Agriculture officials who speak for the health of consumers, of course, is only one small part of the job description for those who represent the food industry. Much of their time is spent prowling the corridors of agency headquarters on the National Mall, where their influence is free from any significant challenge. There, the food manufacturers don’t spend much time pressing the USDA to go easy on its regulations, though that is certainly part of their mission. Instead, they have used their power to turn the agency into a partner in promoting their products. And when it comes to meat and cheese, this relationship has gotten the food companies out of some of their toughest jams—like how to get even more meat and cheese into the shopping carts of Americans, even as they are growing more leery of fat.

The Department of Agriculture’s role in promoting cheese and meat began in earnest in 1985, when the Reagan administration sought to curb the federal government’s subsidies for milk. As John Block, the incoming secretary of agriculture, saw it, the problem was too much production, so he set out to shrink the nation’s milk cow herds. But the proposed fix for Big Dairy—the government would pay for slaughtering 339,000 of their cows—caused some grief for Big Beef. All that meat would flood the market and send beef prices plunging.

Enter a sympathetic Congress.

“I am concerned about the American cattlemen,” Senator Steve Symms, a Republican from Idaho, told his colleagues in 1985. They were hashing out the latest incarnation of the Farm Bill—which sets government policy on agriculture and food—and Symms came from cattle country. “The cowboys are one group of farmers who do not come into Washington and have their hand in the federal trough. I do not know the answer, but I do have a great deal of concern for the American cattlemen, and I think they deserve our heartiest congratulations. I guess one thing we could all do is encourage everyone to go buy some beefsteak—that might help them as much as anything. We could also drink a couple extra glasses of milk and do our part to help get rid of the dairy surplus.”

As it turned out, the dairy cow buyout failed to make much of a dent in the overproduction of milk, since the dairies simply stocked up on new cows, and the ongoing overproduction of milk went toward making more and more cheese. But the ranchers would still get some relief by way of the 1985 Farm Bill. In the short run, the legislation required the Department of Agriculture to purchase 200 million pounds of beef over the next two years for distribution to the needy. Over the long term, however, the Farm Bill had another, more ingenious solution to the surplus problem. It created a system through which meat and cheese producers could aggressively market their products directly to the entire American public and thus encourage the consumption of beef like never before.

Marketing had never been one of the beef and dairy industry’s strong points. To the extent that they understood the power of marketing, they quarreled among themselves too much to develop any kind of organized effort. The ranchers and dairy operators needed help, and Congress had just the solution in mind. It created two marketing programs, one for beef and one for milk, and it put the Secretary of Agriculture in charge of them both.

The programs became known as “checkoffs,” so named for the scheme put in place to raise the money needed to pay for the marketing. Here is how it worked: the nintey-thousand-plus milk cow owners were required to pay fifteen cents to the checkoff for every 100 pounds—about 12 gallons—of milk they produced. For beef, the levy was based on transactions: Every time a cow was sold, such as from ranch to feedlot or from feedlot to slaughterhouse, the seller was required to pay one dollar into the marketing program for beef. Not everyone liked this idea of marketing beef as an undifferentiated mass. Some ranchers view their beef as superior, which they understandably want to promote through their own, specifically tailored advertising. When ranchers were asked to approve the creation of the checkoff program, one in five voted against it, but it wasn’t enough: The majority cast its lot with the Department of Agriculture, so everyone was required to pay the levy.

The dollars for marketing beef added up to more than $80 million a year, and over the years, the total money raised has topped $2 billion. That is, essentially, $2 billion for selling America on more beef, compared with the $6.5 million the USDA’s nutrition center gets each year to nudge Americans in the other direction—of cutting back, not only on fat but on sugar and salt as well. It hasn’t been a fair fight.

The money arrived in the nick of time. Public consumption of beef had been trending downward since 1976: The average person’s yearly consumption of red meat slipped from 94 pounds to 65 pounds, with hamburger accounting for about half of all beef consumed. At the same time, Americans were eating more and more chicken and, to a lesser extent, fish—both of which have far less saturated fat.

This was a real source of concern for beef, but with its new war chest it began mapping out a strategy to maneuver around the public’s concerns. It spent some of the money on market research and found that beef faced the same problem that cheese used to have. People had been stuck eating cheese by itself, or with crackers, until Kraft—supported by the dairy industry’s marketing program—got the idea of transforming the public’s concept of cheese, which sent sales and consumption through the roof. Why couldn’t beef do the same thing?

Mark Thomas, a biochemist, was working for a research and development arm of the beef industry when this lightbulb went on. His unit didn’t have a fancy research laboratory, so it set up a contest to solicit beef-as-an-ingredient ideas from all manner of potential inventors, from cattle growers to grocery manufacturers large and small. The mission: put beef into a prepared and packaged meal that needed only to be heated before being served.

“I thought it was a dumb idea,” Thomas told me. “We’d have these products sent to our test kitchen in Chicago and then presented to a group of judges who would pick five, with a top prize of $50,000. But we put all our advertising weight behind this new category. Fast forward to today, and you will find five to eight brands of ready-to-cook entrees that use beef, from Tyson and others. Hormel has a huge selection, Tips & Gravy, Pot Roast, that you microwave for fifteen minutes. I serve a pot roast to guests, and they think my wife made it.”

With the rise of chicken and its huge success in McNugget-type convenience foods, the industry then put its money to work creating finger foods using beef. A team of food technicians fiddled with beef every which way they could, wrapping it in pancakes with eggs and cheese, adding cheese to it and wrapping it around a stick, and stuffing it into a hollowed-out roll that had the added feature of standing upright on the plate, for a little dining pizzazz. These technicians worked for a Denver-based group known as the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, which was funded by checkoff monies and had 106 members, all of whom were appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture. On its website, the board said that the impetus for all these finger-beef foods was the demise of the American family dinner, which, while lamentable, should be viewed as an opportunity. “We’ve done a lot of research over the last couple of years regarding today’s youth and today’s adult consumer, and especially with the adult consumer,” a beef board official said in one promotional video. “They are on the go, and the same with kids, they are rushed as well. They are going to school, to various practices, to after-school events, and then spend a lot of time doing homework, and we ate at the dinner table every night, and we understand that today’s consumers don’t do that necessarily. So we try to make new convenient products that fit into their lifestyles. Based on the research, with people on the go, we tried to make these products as easy and convenient as possible and as portable as possible.”

If Americans were intent on snacking their way through the day, beef would be there for them. In this effort, the beef industry discovered it had a natural ally in dairy. They combined forces to develop recipes that used both beef and cheese, and worked together to promote more fast food sales as well through campaigns like “Double Cheeseburger Days,” which launched in 2006, targeting college students. The beef industry’s own analysis has found that the checkoff program has been boosting the consumption of beef between 3 and 5 percent each year since its founding in 1986.

As it was promoting new convenience foods that used beef, the beef marketing program also went in the other direction. It developed new cuts of beef that had less fat, including one called the Flat Iron, which was taken from the animal’s shoulder. Today, the beef industry says it has at least twenty-nine cuts of beef that meet the government guidelines for being lean: 4.5 grams of saturated fat in a serving, which, remember, is still nearly a third of the daily recommended maximum. It also rolled out an intense lobbying campaign that sought to dispel the notion that beef was inherently fatty and, at the same time, emphasize its nutrients, such as zinc and vitamin B12. “Beyond beef’s leanness and favorable fatty acid profile, beef’s bundle of nutrients is beneficial for growing, developing and maintaining overall health through all life’s stages, from gestation to the senior years,” the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, an affiliate of the beef board, wrote to the USDA’s nutrition panel during the deliberations for the 2010 nutrition guide.

Behind the scenes, however, the industry has struggled with these leaner cuts. Some suffer greatly from having less fat, with an inferior mouthfeel and tough chewing. One of the industry’s solutions to this has been to soften up the muscular tissue in the processing plant by running the leanest meat through a device that deploys rows of steel needles or blades to pierce the meat, in what is known as “mechanical tenderization”; some 50 million pounds of meat is currently being softened in this fashion each month. Another method is to treat the meat with a briny solution that softens the tissue.§