Journalism and Current Events Toolkit (Document)
Meet the Correspondent: Rick Karr (Document)
Pork, the other white meat.
RICK KARR: Got Milk. You definitely have seen the ads before. These messages are brought to you with the United States Department of Agriculture seal of approval.
Beef, it’s what’s for dinner.
RICK KARR: They're here to remind you to enjoy a range of food commodities – from beef, to milk, to mangoes.
RICK KARR: The theory behind these promotional programs is that everybody wins when Americans eat more things that are grown on American farms. So there's no harm in reminding us that beef is what's for dinner. Or that pork is the other white meat. Or asking us if we've got milk. But critics say these programs may not be as wholesome as they sound. One U-S-D-A-approved program helped to market McDonald's McRib sandwich – and lobbied Mickey D's to bring it back nationally – for a limited time only. Nutrition experts say there's nothing wrong with the pork in the sandwich. It's the rest of the package that isn't so healthy – like all of the high fructose corn syrup in that barbeque sauce.
MARION NESTLE: You’re adding all kinds of things that turn it into something that’s a much less healthful product. But we’re not talking about health here. We’re talking about sales.
RICK KARR: And that's the problem, according to Marion Nestle. She's a New York University professor and the author of “Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health”. In a nutshell, she says, the U-S-D-A has two jobs to do – and one of them contradicts the other.
NESTLE: It’s main mandate is to promote American agricultural products and productivity and production and make money for American agriculture. On the other hand, since the 1970s, it has also taken on the responsibility of advising the public about diet and health.
RICK KARR: The food pyramid that's supposed to be a guide to a balanced and healthy diet is a product of the U-S-D-A. So is the message that Americans should eat more fruits and vegetables and whole grains. At the same time, it's the Department of Agriculture's job to promote the consumption of products from American farms and ranches.
RICK KARR: One way it does that is by overseeing promotional programs that may actually be encouraging people to put on weight.
MARION NESTLE: If you’re going to do something about obesity, you have to get people to eat less. But every single time, the Department of Agriculture is in the position of saying, "Eat less of some particular food commodity," it flies in the face of the Department’s imperative to promote sales of that product. They will not say, "Eat less meat or dairy products" because it’s politically impossible for them to do that.
RICK KARR: There are programs that promote the consumption of processed dairy products, peanuts, popcorn, potatoes, pork, Hass avocados, and eleven other foods. Congress started creating them in the seventies at the request of agriculture trade groups. They're funded not by taxes, per se, but by mandatory fees on farmers and ranchers – for beef, for example, it's a dollar per head of cattle. Some small farmers and ranchers don't like the programs: They say the real beneficiaries are big agribusiness firms like ADM, ConAgra and Monsanto. But when they've tried to opt out, both the U-S-D-A and the Supreme Court have said that these are legitimate government initiatives. So they rake in a lot of money: Together, all seventeen of them spend nearly seven hundred million dollars a year on advertising, research, and PR. Some of that cash flows straight to fast-food firms.
RICK KARR: The BEEF promotion program helped the Quizno's chain market its Steakhouse Prime Rib and Beef Dip sandwiches. They can weigh in at nearly twelve hundred calories – or more than half of what the U-S-D-A says a typical American should eat in a whole day. Critics say the U-S-D-A's giving its blessing to marketing campaigns that are contributing to unhealthy eating habits. Habits that might be hard to kick.
DAVID KESSLER: It’s going to be much harder to deal with this public health crisis than the one that was generated by tobacco because I can not smoke. I have to eat.
RICK KARR: Doctor David Kessler took on Big Tobacco as head of the Food and Drug Administration during the George H-W Bush and Clinton administrations. Now, he's taking on what he calls America's terrible dietary habits. Kessler says the only way the government will stop sending mixed messages when it comes to food is if lawmakers pay a price for caving in to the agriculture lobby whose members are the main beneficiaries of the promotional programs.
DAVID KESSLER: There has to be a cost to those who continue to support special interest. That’s the bottom line. Look at any government program that subsidizes any commodity for any industry and there’s special interest behind them. Want to change the policy? Expose that special interest.
RICK KARR: In a statement, the Department of Agriculture said that “all marketing advertising campaigns are reviewed for compliance” with the appropriate regulations and that the Department “continuously reviews and assesses whether it is meeting its missions and which processes or protocols might be improved.”
MARION NESTLE: Finding an independent place in government is very difficult. So, I would say either the Center for Disease Control or the National Institutes of Health would be a more appropriate place. But they are afraid they will move to do that. The Department of Agriculture is not eager to give it up, because it’s very powerful. And this way, the Department of Agriculture can dilute the dietary messages so that they never say eat less of anything. They say eat less solid fats, whatever that might be.
RICK KARR: Marion Nestle says every time we go to the supermarket, we're paying for these promotional programs in the form of higher food prices. And, she says, if we listen to their suggestions to eat more we could end up paying an even higher price.
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