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How Journalists Got the Cheese Lobbying Story Wrong

By James McWilliams, November 22, 2010 - 12:19pm

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How Journalists Got the Cheese Lobbying Story Wrong

On November 7, The New York Times ran a front-page story by Michael Moss exposing what appears to be yet another sinister example of bureaucratic hypocrisy in the tainted world of food regulation. The USDA, according to Moss, has assumed the contradictory role of warning Americans against a high-fat diet while, at the same time, promoting the consumption of heart-clogging cheese products. Worse, as Moss implies, American taxpayers are the ones funding this corporate-friendly doublespeak.

Michael Moss is an ace reporter. His work on the meat industry for the Times has been unmatched. I'm a fan. In the case of this cheese story, though, Moss obscured an important point, one that dampens the outrage you might have felt if you'd received Michael Pollan's tweet that "our tax dollars [are] at work promoting Domino's Pizza."

The point of this post is not to impugn Moss's actual reporting, but rather to clarify a misunderstanding that, due to a single false implication, has taken hold of the journalistic establishment. If you'd like to stop reading now and move on to a more savory topic, here's the takeaway: Your tax dollars are not at work promoting Domino's pizza. (Could somebody tweet that for me?)

At the center of Moss's story is a marketing outfit known as Dairy Management. Dairy Management, which started in 1994, serves one god: dairy sales. Funding for Dairy Management's domestic marketing campaign does not come from the USDA, but rather from private producers who tax themselves to pay for the organization's marketing strategies. The funds that result are called "checkoff" funds.

The USDA's job with respect to Dairy Management—a job defined by the Dairy Production and Stabilization Act of 1983—is to make sure all producers pay the tax, that nobody freeloads, and that marketing campaigns are legal. Occasionally, the USDA will choose board members for Dairy Management, but the vast majority of the board is comprised of dairymen. Moss wrote nothing to directly counteract any of these facts.

The problem with the piece was more subtle. Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort, was one of the first to grasp it. Moss, argues Bishop, produced "a misleading story" by encouraging "readers (and quite a few journalists) to believe that the U. S. Department of Agriculture spent your money to promote unhealthy concoctions containing bushel baskets of cheese."

At the crux of Bishop's thorough vivisection of the Times article is the claim by Moss that Dairy Management "received several million dollars a year from the Agriculture Department." Readers could reasonably conclude from this remark that their tax dollars were at work promoting Dairy Management-Domino's agreements that led to stuffing a typical pizza with four times more cheese.

That's disgusting. But it's not the point. The point is that although Moss is correct that Dairy Management receives millions from the USDA, his mistake (and the source of the false implication) came in not noting until several paragraphs later that those millions (about five) do not fund domestic programs like the Domino's crust-stuffing gambit. In actuality, those USDA funds are designated "to promote dairy interests overseas"—in other words, opening foreign markets to U.S. dairy.

So in the end Moss's story was not about the USDA using taxpayer dollars to fund a cheesy agreement between Dairy Management and Domino's Pizza. Instead it was about the dairy industry paying for marketing services—services that happen to be regulated by the USDA—designed to sell more cheese.

And of course that's not much of a story.

This article originally appeared on The Atlantic's Food Channel.

TAGS: James McWilliams, Food News Blog, Food & health news, Nutrition, The Atlantic

James McWilliams is an Associate Professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos.

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