Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Commodity promotion programs: What’s the beef?

Government-sanctioned promotion programs, known as checkoff programs, aim to increase consumption of commodities such as dairy, beef, and pork but, according to one food economist, the messages are inconsistent with the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Checkoff programs; even if you don’t know what they are, you’ve probably felt their impact in recent years. Does “Got Milk?” sound familiar? How about “Pork. The other white meat?” These advertising campaigns are the result of government-sanctioned promotion programs, known as checkoff programs. The campaigns aim to increase consumption of commodities such as dairy, beef, and pork. But, according to an opinion piece, (Wilde, PE. Obesity. June 2006; 14 (6): 967-973. “Federal Communication about Obesity in the Dietary Guidelines and Checkoff Programs.”) authored by Parke Wilde, PhD, a food economist at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, the messages sent out by these advertising campaigns are inconsistent with the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

“The [checkoff] programs are established by Congress, approved by a majority of the commodity’s producers, managed jointly by a producer board and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and funded through a tax on the producers,” Wilde writes. “The largest food commodity checkoff programs are for meat and dairy products,” he continues.

The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published jointly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, recommend that most people consume more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, fish, and low-fat dairy products and, overall, moderately reduce the total number of calories consumed. Checkoff programs, on the other hand, promote consumption of beef, pork, and dairy products. Particular checkoff programs, Wilde points out, have promoted such calorie-heavy foods as bacon cheeseburgers, barbecue pork ribs and butter.

“The most striking feature of the revised Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released in January 2005, is the publication’s increased emphasis on obesity prevention,” Wilde writes. “At the same time,” he says, “federal support for promoting fruits and vegetables is small compared to federal support for pork and dairy.”

“One must ask whether it is possible to eat more beef, more pork, more cheese, and more eggs, in answer to checkoff advertising, while simultaneously consuming more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy, in answer to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and still reduce caloric intake to reach or maintain a healthy body weight,” observes Wilde.

“The government’s stand in this matter is important,” says Wilde, “because federal communication about nutrition is supposed to be consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

“The federal government enforces the collection of more than $600 million annually in mandatory assessments, approves the advertising and marketing programs, and defends checkoff communication in court as the federal government’s own message—in legal jargon, as its own ‘government speech,’” writes Wilde.

The ‘government speech’ issue arose when some farmers objected to the checkoff programs on First Amendment grounds, claiming that the programs forced the farmers to support a particular commercial message. However, in May 2005, the United States Supreme Court declared checkoff advertising “government speech,” thereby absolving it of constitutional objection. In the Supreme Court’s decision, Justice Antonin Scalia claimed that the checkoff messages are “from beginning to end” the message of the federal government.

“Now that checkoff programs are clearly identified as federal government programs, calls for consistency with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans may get louder,” says Wilde. “One solution would be for Congress to pass a resolution simply declaring that the federal government’s ‘speech’ about good guidance and nutrition must in its entirety be consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” proposes Wilde. “After the Supreme Court’s recent endorsement of this government speech doctrine, the current inconsistencies between the government’s message in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and in the checkoff promotions deserve renewed attention.”


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