milk moneyWhat’s more important: children’s health, or helping a sponsor move product?The School Nutrition Association, representing thousands of school food service workers across the country, exists to “advance good nutrition for all children.” Yet it has embraced a “study” promoting chocolate milk and other sugar-added milkbeverages that was paid for by the dairy industry and conducted by a firm that specializes in devising corporate marketing schemes. As for whether the study is based on solid science, it’s impossible to say — the dairy group that funded it refuses to release it for public inspection.

Yet the SNA has announced it plans to hold a “webinar” on the study Aug. 25 to trumpet the findings, drawn from a sample of schools, that purport to show that milk consumption dropped an average 35 percent when chocolate and other flavored milks were removed and students were offered only plain milk.

The study was commissioned by MilkPEP, a dairy industry group that operates under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and uses funds collected from members to promote milk. Perhaps best known for the catchy “Got Milk?” advertising campaign, the group has spent more than $1 billion to halt what has been a steady decline in U.S. milk consumption in recent decades.

MilkPEP, along with National Dairy and the National Dairy Council, are listed as “patrons” of the School Nutrition Association, meaning they pay at least $10,000 in annual dues to support SNA activities. A MilkPEP representative also sits on the SNA’s “Industry Advisory Board,” along  with representatives from corporate food giants such as Tyson, Sysco and General Mills.

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On its website, the SNA says the free “webinar,” entitled, “Keep Flavored Milk from Dropping Out of School,” is being offered “in partnership with the Milk Processor Education Program (MilkPEP),” and that participants will “learn how to share” the study’s findings. “Learn about free resources available to use with parents, school officials, and other interested parties to help show that student nutrition and food budgets are negatively impacted when flavored milk is removed from schools,” the SNA urges.

The School Nutrition Association figured prominently in recent Congressional hearings on the reauthorization of school meal programs, testifying that schools on average lose 35 cents on every lunch they serve.

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The flavored milk “study” was first unveiled at the SNA’s annual conference in Dallas July 13. When I called MilkPEP here in Washington, D.C., to obtain a copy of the study, I was referred to the Chicago offices of Weber Shandwick, a global public relations firm with 81 offices in 40 countries, according to its website. A representative there, Chris Bona, first asked me how I intended to use the study. After I provided him with my professional background and links to my reporting on the school food issue — including the debate over flavored milk — Bona declined to make the study available.

“I checked and since MilkPEP may decide to present or publish the study, at this time we’re only able to share the information I sent you on Friday,” Bona said, referring to a press release and a two-page colored flyer describing the study’s findings.

Because MilkPEP refuses to release the study for closer scrutiny, it is impossible to know whether its finding are at all scientifically valid. References cited in the study are mostly from the American Dietetic Association, another group heavily sponsored by the food industry.

Nutritionist and food-politics writer Marion Nestle dismissed the MilkPEP report.

“It’s well known in nutrition research that sponsored studies yield results that favor the sponsor’s interests,” Nestle said. “This study was sponsored by the Milk Processors who have a vested interest in making sure that milk sales increase. Without reading the actual study, I cannot comment on its methods, but I’m willing to hazard a guess that the investigators designed the study — consciously or unconsciously — to favor consumption of chocolate milk.

“Of course kids will choose chocolate milk,” Nestle continued, “or candy for that matter if given a choice. I know of plenty of examples of schools that have given up chocolate milk and do not see losses in sales once the kids get used to the idea that they can’t have it at school any more.”

Kate Adamick, a nationally recognized school food consultant who is an outspoken advocate of eliminating flavored milk from schools, both because of the hazards posed by added sugar in flavored milk and because it costs schools more to buy it, dismissed the study on the same grounds.

“What a ‘shock’ that the folks who have the most to gain financially by convincing everyone that kids need to drink flavored milk came up with a study that says kids need to drink flavored milk,” Adamick said.

Ann Cooper, the “renegade lunch lady” who has eliminated flavored milk from two prominent school districts — Berkeley, Calif., and Boulder, Co. — has called flavored milk “soda in drag.” Chocolate milk, for instance, usually contains around 26 grams of sugar — including the lactose that occurs naturally — the equivalent of 6.5 teaspoons, or about the same, ounce-for-ounce, as Classic Coke. Strawberry milk contains nearly as much sugar as Mountain Dew.

“The argument is like this: If our kids don’t like apples, but do like apple pie, then let’s just feed them apple pie in school,” Cooper said. “It just doesn’t make any sense.” Cooper said she believes children can get enough calcium and Vitamin D from sources other than milk and that flavored milk should only be served as a treat at home.

The disease primarily associated with insufficient Vitamin D — rickets — is so rare as to be practically unheard of, except in some infants that breast feed and do not receive Vitamin D supplements. Still, many parents worry about children not getting enough calcium and Vitamin D. The dairy industry claims the U.S. is suffering a “calcium crisis.” And as more school districts take up the question of whether to remove flavored milk, the issue is being hotly debated. School officials in the District of Columbia recently decided without fanfare to discontinue serving flavored milk and sugary cereals, a move that has reverberated around the country.

Americans today consume only half as much milk per person as they did at the end of World War II. Milk has steadily lost ground to competing beverages, such as sodas. Flavored milk is one of the few bright spots in this otherwise dismal picture. More than half the flavored milk sold is sold to schools, and 70 percent of the milk kids drink at school is flavored.

The milk industry claims the situation would be even worse without advertising. MilkPEP is a commodity “check off” program authorized by Congress in 1990, under which processors pay a charge according to the amount of milk they produce. The group’s annual budget for 2006, for instance, was $107.8 million. Spending of the funds is overseen by the USDA.

“First and foremost, MilkPEP is the industry’s only marketing tool solely devoted to promoting fluid milk to America’s consumers nationally,” according to the group’s website. “It is essential in the industry’s fight to maintain share of stomach against strong national beverage brands such as Coke, Pepsi, Tropicana, Minute Maid, Gatorade, Poland Springs, Dasani and others.”

The flavored milk “study” being promoted by the School Nutrition Association was conducted by Prime Consultant Group, a major player in consumer analysis and sales strategies that lists among
 clients Coca-Cola, PepsiCo International, Kraft Foods/Nabisco, Sara Lee and Proctor & Gamble. Besides MilkPEP, Dairy Management Inc. and the International Dairy Association, it conducts business for the Grocery Manufacturers of America and the Food Marketing Institute.

Prime Consultant Group reported in the summary documents provided by Weber Shandwick that it examined children’s milk drinking habits in 58 schools in seven school districts across the country over a three month period in 2009. Not only did milk consumption drop an average 35 percent when flavored milk was removed, it said, but kids drank 37 percent less milk even a year or more after the move to plain milk had taken place.