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

The USDA’s responses to my questions about the beef marketing program were cautiously defensive. Like the program for cheese and other dairy products, the marketing efforts were paid for entirely with the levies placed on the producers themselves, the agency stressed, and were overseen by the Secretary of Agriculture in large part to maintain support for the program among the cattle growers. Moreover, they pointed to the agency’s own work on obesity as evidence that it can handle multiple missions.

One of the most stinging barbs hurled at the marketing programs, however, has come from the other end of the National Mall, in the halls of the United States Supreme Court. It was there that one of the justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, came across the inherent conflict in the federal government’s pursuit of better nutrition for the American people. Her scrutiny of the beef marketing program came during a legal challenge that reached the high court in 2005. The case was brought by several disgruntled people in the cattle industry who sued the secretary of agriculture to overturn the marketing program, arguing that its generic promotion of beef undermined their efforts to market their particular beef products as special. The Supreme Court ruled against them. However, the case turned not on the merits of the marketing efforts but on who was doing the marketing. If this was a private program, the dissenters would have had standing to sue. But this was no private program, the court decided. All of the effort to make beef appear leaner, more convenient, and more useful as an additive in processed foods was, for all intents and purposes, an effort by the people of the United States. That is, it was a government program. It mattered not in the least that the money used to fund the marketing program came from the cattle growers themselves, the justices said. The secretary of agriculture played such an extensive role in determining how these millions were spent that the checkoff program was a form of “government speech,” which protected it from legal challenge. “The Secretary of Agriculture, a politically accountable official, oversees the program, appoints and dismisses the key personnel, and retains absolute veto power over the advertisements’ content, right down to the wording,” the majority opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, said. “And Congress, of course, retains oversight authority, not to mention the ability to reform the program at any time.”

Ginsburg joined with the majority in upholding the marketing program but had a quibble that prompted her to write a separate opinion. She said she could simply not support the notion that the marketing activities were “government speech.” How could they be, she asked, when others within the USDA were trying to urge people to eat less meat? Even Ginsburg had to work hard to put this message together, citing the relevant pages from the panel’s 2005 guide on nutrition in her opinion. The part about Americans needing to eat less saturated fats came from one section of the report, and the part about meat being a big source of these fats from another. But the panel’s intent was clear, she said. “I resist ranking the promotional messages funded under the Beef Promotion and Research Act of 1985, but not attributed to the government, as government speech,” she wrote in conclusion, “given the message the Government conveys in its own name.”

Ginsburg, of course, could have said the same thing—and a good deal more—about the government’s other big checkoff, the one for dairies, which put the beef marketing to shame. At a time when the USDA, in its own publications, was urging Americans to eat less cheese-laden pizza, the dairy marketing program was boasting of its huge success in getting Americans to eat more cheese on their pizza, in their snacks, and in products scattered all over the grocery store. The dairy marketing program has even teamed up with restaurant chains like Domino’s to help foster concoctions like “The Wisconsin,” a pie that has six cheeses on top and two more in the crust. “This partnership sells more cheese,” the checkoff’s manager explained in a 2009 column published by a trade publication. “If every pizza were made with one additional ounce of cheese, it would require an additional 2.5 billion pounds of milk annually.”

Each year, the USDA reports to Congress on the marketing program’s victories on behalf of the dairy industry, focusing largely on its prowess in getting Americans to eat more of the stuff. With Kraft’s efforts to transform cheese from a food into an ingredient, it could claim only partial credit for the tripling of consumption since 1970. The USDA, however, has given the dairy marketing program several million dollars in taxpayer money each year to promote cheese consumption overseas, and its success on this front can be more rightfully claimed. It even caused the Department of Agriculture to gush in its 2002 report to Congress. “In Mexico, a joint promotion with Domino’s Pizza featured the USDEC logo on all Domino’s pizza boxes with the slogan, ‘Made with 100% U.S. Cheese.’ Domino’s delivers more than 1.6 million pizzas a month in Mexico.” The following year, the agency reported that Domino’s had added “cheesy bread” to its Mexico offerings, and this alone led to 36 tons of additional cheese sales each week. There was one thing the 2002 report did not mention. At the same time that taxpayer money was being used to promote cheese in Mexico, the people of Mexico were on their way to having the highest rates of obesity in the world after U.S. citizens.

This zeal at the USDA for boosting the consumption of cheese, along with red meat, helped explain what I found in the next phase of my reporting. At one point, even Kraft grew wary of its efforts in promoting processed foods. A cabal of concerned insiders convinced Kraft’s leadership to reexamine some of its policies with an eye toward easing the company’s impact on the obesity crisis. It was a remarkable effort, with mixed results, but there was one thing about it I could not square: The Kraft officials didn’t feel they could wait for the Department of Agriculture to pursue a new course. Kraft knew, or at least it would learn, that with the agency’s conflicted role in fighting obesity, those in the industry who wanted to do the right thing by consumers would have to do it on their own.

* Using the standard of 2,000 calories a day, an average on which the nutritional labeling on packaged foods is based, a person would need to consume no more than fifteen-and-a-half grams of saturated fat—about three scoops of ice cream or two glasses of whole milk—to reach the 7 percent level.

? The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, passed by Congress, required the FDA to set food labeling rules.

? Other special interests like egg producers, cereal manufacturers, and a second food industry funded group, the International Food Information Council, won their own panel members, while four others were nominated by academic institutions. But none of the thirteen members was nominated by a consumer advocacy organization. The nominating letters were released to me through a Freedom of Information Act request.

§ Worries have arisen about both of these methods, despite the industry’s conviction that they are safe. The needles used in mechanical tenderization could push E. coli and other harmful pathogens into the center of steaks where, normally, the cooking temperature is not high enough to kill the bugs. As for the brining, some of the solutions in use have added hefty loads of salt to the meat.

‖ The actual savings varied year to year, depending on how much burger was served and the percentage of defatted material used. In 2012, before the pink slime controversy forced the USDA to backpedal, agency officials said that they had planned to purchase 111 million pounds of ground beef using the defatted material at less than half the typical rate of 15 percent, which would have saved them 1.5 cents a pound, or $1.4 million.

a Despite the ammonia’s intended purpose of killing pathogens, testing the processed meat turned up instances of contamination, in which the tainted product was diverted before it could reach consumers.

b Among the defatted beef’s critics was Bettina Siegel, a Harvard Law School graduate who had previously worked for the food giant Unilever scrutinizing the legal aspects of its marketing and advertising. In early 2012, however, as a mother of two, she was writing a blog about food called the Lunch Tray from her home deep in meat country (Houston, Texas), and she organized an online petition drive to bar the processed beef from schools. Her petition quickly drew 200,000 signatures and caused the USDA to cave: In March 2012, the agency announced that schools would be able to choose burger without the material. It also allowed meat manufacturers to identify the processed beef as something other than “beef” on their labels, if they so chose.