Parents and kid with cheese‘Eat the cheese, son, it’s mmm, tasty.’ ‘No, don’t, too much will make you fat!: The USDA has split personality when giving nutritional advice. Ace New York Times reporter Michael Moss dropped a bombshell on the front page of Sunday’s paper, on how one arm of the USDA teams with the junk/fast-food industry to urge people to eat lots of cheese, even as another arm urges Americans to eat fewer high-calorie foods.

Moss’s article — the best piece of investigative food journalism I’ve seen since his terrific piece on a common hamburger additive known affectionately as “pink slime” — has generated plenty of comment. (See Kerry Trueman at Civil Eats; Matt Yglesias at Think Progress; Jill Richardson at La Vida Locavore; and Grist’s Tom Laskaway, this time over at Beyond Green.) It’s also worth pointing out that Tufts professor Parke Wilde has been writing well about the government “checkoff” systems that fund these weird marketing schemes since 2005.

At any rate, Moss’ piece raises two key points I want to tease out.

1) The USDA’s mission is deeply contradictory — and geared to promoting, not regulating, the food industry.

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In its latest strategic plan [PDF], the USDA lists four overarching goals. One of those goals is to “ensure that all of America’s children have access to safe, nutritious, and balanced meals.” The agency’s mandate on nutrition and food safety doesn’t stop at children. It also runs the “Food Pyramid” program, which purports to define a healthy and balanced diet; and operates the Food Safety and Inspection Service, the sub-agency charged with overseeing the safety of nation’s meat supply.

Those functions put the USDA in the role of industry watchdog — one of the public’s main tools for keeping the vast food industry in check.

But another of the USDA’s major goals is to be industry’s best salesperson — to “help America promote agricultural production and biotechnology exports as America works to increase food security,” as the strategic plan puts it. In this capacity, the USDA’s role is to spur the food and ag industry on — to ramp up production, and to find ways to profitably dispose of surpluses.

As Moss graphically shows, the USDA’s control of industry marketing boards like Dairy Management stand at the nexus of how the USDA’s various functions contradict each other. Dairy Management only gets a small portion of its funding directly from taxpayers. But as Moss shows, the USDA maintains effective control over its marketing functions:

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Dairy Management, whose annual budget approaches $140 million, is largely financed by a government-mandated fee on the dairy industry. But it also receives several million dollars a year from the Agriculture Department, which appoints some of its board members, approves its marketing campaigns and major contracts and periodically reports to Congress on its work.

And like other USDA-controlled marketing boards, Dairy Management has been proven to be an extremely successful marketer.

So overall, which of the USDA’s goals — reining in the food industry or promoting its wares — wins? As Moss points out, driven largely by the marketing efforts of Dairy Management and the collapse in U.S. milk prices as production has surged, Americans now consume nearly three times as much cheese per capita as they did in 1970.

Meanwhile, Domino’s Pizza, which Dairy Management helped develop and market a “new line of pizzas with 40 percent more cheese,” saw its sales “soar by double digits.”

2) The core problem here is overproduction and the collapse of New Deal-era supply management programs.

How did we get to the point where an entity managed by the USDA is helping a junk-food company develop and market a pizza with “six cheeses on top and two more in the crust”?

It all goes back to the the Great Depression, when the United States experienced the bitter paradox of widespread hunger along with crop prices that were so low that hundreds of thousands of farmers were driven to ruin. It was the climax of decades of cycles of overproduction and collapse in agriculture.

To smooth things out, Congress implemented policies designed to help farmers manage the supply of their commodities. Under what became known as the supply management regime — which I explained in a Victual Reality column three years ago — the USDA organized farmers to keep them from producing too much and forcing prices down to ruinous levels.

But to make a very long story short, the food and agribusiness industries hated supply management, because they thrive on low commodity prices. So starting in the early 1970s, U.S. policymakers began to phase out supply management. In the new era, farmers were urged to produce as much as possible. Rather than manage supply, the USDA would help find markets for excess goods.

This is the brilliant policy that has brought on such dubious products as high-fructose corn syrup, corn-based ethanol, partially hydrogenated corn oil, corn- and soy-fed meat — and, as Moss reports, “the Taco Bell steak quesadilla, with cheddar, pepper jack, mozzarella and a creamy sauce.”

Dairy farmers are urged to produce as much as possible, by any means necessary. And the USDA helps push the inevitable excess into the American diet through junk-food restaurants.

Of course, Moss’ analysis could be usefully applied to U.S. farm policy in general, where the push has been to maximize production and the marketing of surpluses, both domestically and internationally. We’ll be digging deeper into this issue as negotiations around the 2012 Farm Bill draw nearer.

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