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Keywords:

  • generic advertising;
  • commodity promotion;
  • Beef Board;
  • Dairy Board;
  • Fluid Milk Board

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Federal Dietary Guidance about Healthy Weight
  5. Commodity Checkoff Programs
  6. Weight Loss Messages in Checkoff Advertising
  7. Conclusions
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

The new Dietary Guidelines for Americans focus on obesity prevention. They recommend increased consumption of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, fish, and low-fat dairy products, within a balanced diet whose total calories have been moderately reduced. Meanwhile, other well-known and well-funded federally sponsored consumer communications promote increased total consumption of beef, pork, and dairy products, including energy dense foods such as bacon cheeseburgers, barbecue pork ribs, pizza, and butter. These latter communications are sponsored by the federal government's commodity promotion programs, known as “checkoff” programs. The 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. 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.” Federal support for promoting fruits and vegetables is small by comparison. The checkoff programs recently have become more clearly identified as federal programs. After a recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of the checkoff programs, calls for consistency with the Dietary Guidelines may get louder. The current inconsistencies in federal communication undermine the effectiveness of the Dietary Guidelines as an antidote to the shortcomings of the private sector market for information about weight and obesity.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Federal Dietary Guidance about Healthy Weight
  5. Commodity Checkoff Programs
  6. Weight Loss Messages in Checkoff Advertising
  7. Conclusions
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

The most striking feature of the revised Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released in January 2005, is the publication's increased emphasis on obesity prevention: “To reverse the trend toward obesity, most Americans need to eat fewer calories, be more active, and make wiser food choices” (1). The Dietary Guidelines, which are released every 5 years and are now in their sixth edition, are intended as the federal government's most authoritative summary of the state of nutrition science and the basis for all federal communication with consumers on nutrition topics.

For most Americans, the new Guidelines recommend increased consumption of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, fish, and low-fat dairy products, within a balanced diet whose total calories have nevertheless been moderately reduced. By subtraction, the Guidelines clearly encourage a diet with lower average amounts of some combination of foods from other categories, such as added sugars, high-fat snacks and desserts, grains other than whole grains, meat, and high-fat dairy products.

Meanwhile, other well-known and well-funded federally sponsored consumer communications promote increased total consumption of beef, pork, and dairy products, including energy dense foods such as bacon cheeseburgers, barbecue pork ribs, pizza, and butter (2, 3). These communications are sponsored by the federal government's commodity promotion programs, known as “checkoff” programs.

Congress has authorized checkoff programs for 35 agricultural commodities. Of these, 16 federally sanctioned programs were active in 2004. The largest food commodity checkoff programs are for meat and dairy products (Figure 1). In 2004, the checkoff assessments collected under federal government authority totaled $273 million for dairy (including $86 million for a federal board and $187 million for qualified state programs), $106 million for fluid milk, $65 million for pork, and $46 million for beef (4, 5). With total collections exceeding $600 million in 2004, the checkoff programs far overshadow other federally sponsored consumer communications about food, although their budget is still modest by comparison to the federal government's spending on farm programs (the Commodity Credit Corporation budget was $10.6 billion in 2004).

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Figure 1. Generic commodity promotion (“checkoff”) program revenues, 2004 (4) (5).

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The advertising campaigns from the checkoff programs include: “Beef. It's What's for Dinner,” “Ahh, the Power of Cheese,” “Pork. The Other White Meat,” “Got Milk?” and the “Milk Mustache” campaign. These campaigns are so familiar that many readers will recognize the slogans immediately and be surprised only to hear that they are federally sanctioned. They are.

The 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 (USDA), and funded through mandatory assessments on the producers. The federal government enforces the collection of the 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” (4).

There is no checkoff for poultry or fish, and checkoff support for fruits and vegetables is small. In 2004, of the more than $600 million in total checkoff collections, $16.3 million was for avocados, $1.8 million for mushrooms, $1.5 million for watermelons, and $1.3 million for blueberries (4). In addition to the checkoff programs, the federal government provides modest support for fruit and vegetable consumer promotions through other financial vehicles. In fiscal year 2001, the National Cancer Institute expenditure on the “5-a-day” campaign for fruits and vegetables was $3.6 million (6).

The mixed messages of the checkoff programs are unusual even by comparison to contradictions that have been noted in other areas of nutrition and public health policy. For example, federal transportation policies may have promoted suburban land use patterns that discourage walking and physical activity as a side effect (7). In the case of the checkoff programs, by contrast, encouraging more food consumption is explicitly the intended purpose of the policy.

Nutrition experts have previously questioned the checkoff programs. Laura Sims called them “an anathema to most nutritionists and health professionals” (8). Marion Nestle said that they “promote products high in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol, and the funds are used to influence food and nutritional policies favorable to industry” (9). The new contribution of this Perspective article is to integrate the existing discussion of checkoff programs in the nutrition and economics literature and to update these discussions in light of recent legal developments.

This article first describes the federal government's balanced healthy weight message, contained in the Dietary Guidelines. Second, it provides background on the commodity checkoff programs. Third, it reviews how consumer concerns about obesity are perceived in economic research sponsored by the checkoff programs and how these perceptions have influenced weight-loss messages in checkoff advertising. For example, in addition to promoting increased food consumption in general, the checkoff boards encourage low-carb and high-calcium weight loss diets, which emphasize particular nutrients at the expense of the balanced healthy weight message of the Dietary Guidelines.

Federal Dietary Guidance about Healthy Weight

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Federal Dietary Guidance about Healthy Weight
  5. Commodity Checkoff Programs
  6. Weight Loss Messages in Checkoff Advertising
  7. Conclusions
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

The federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans summarize the best current scientific evidence on nutrition issues. For the new edition, USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services jointly appointed an external advisory committee to review and summarize the relevant scientific literature (10). This committee drew on work by other authoritative bodies, such as the NIH and the new Dietary Reference Intakes from the Institute of Medicine at the National Academies. In preparing its report, the advisory committee considered 435 written public comments and many oral presentations. The new guidelines provide the scientific basis for further consumer publications and graphics designed to reach the lay public (1).

By summarizing the balance of the current scientific evidence, the Dietary Guidelines offer important advantages over the private sector market for information about weight loss. In the world of book publishing, one finds that Dr. Atkins's New Diet Revolution recommends a high-meat, low-carbohydrate diet for weight loss (11); Eat More, Weigh Less: Dr. Dean Ornish's Life Choice Program for Losing Weight Safely While Eating Abundantly recommends a low-fat plant-based diet (12); Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy, by Harvard's Walter Willett, based on volumes of epidemiological evidence, somewhat splits the difference by suggesting a plant-based diet that permits comparatively generous amounts of vegetable oils (13); The Calcium Key, in contrast, promises that a high-dairy diet boosts your metabolism and helps you lose 70% more weight than does calorie restriction alone (14). A selection of scientific evidence has been cited to defend many of these weight loss strategies (15). However, while a recent clinical trial provided modest evidence of weight loss under four different diet strategies, all four seemed to have low rates of long-term adherence, and none was clearly more successful than the others (16).

Healthy weight maintenance has been a theme of the Dietary Guidelines ever since the first edition in 1980, although the wording has changed over the years from “maintain ideal weight” in 1980, to “maintain desirable weight” in 1985, to “aim for a healthy weight” in 2000 (8). The new 2005 edition of the Dietary Guidelines differs from earlier editions by increasing the emphasis on healthy weight and by aiming for a scientific and policy readership instead of a general audience.

While the message of the Dietary Guidelines may not be bluntly stated, it is sufficiently clear for specialists and interested lay readers alike. The guidelines most directly related to obesity prevention focus on calorie balance: to maintain body weight in a healthy range, one should balance calories from foods and beverages with calories expended, and to prevent gradual weight gain over time, one should make small decreases in food and beverage calories and increase physical activity.

These guidelines contrast sharply with food industry hopes that Americans might be able to solve the obesity problem through exercise alone and with the many weight loss fads that encourage avoidance of or concentration on particular nutrients.

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee was particularly concerned about popular low-carb weight loss diets because of multiple shortcomings: high saturated fat content, high cholesterol content, low fiber content, low intake of fruits, vegetable, and grains, and unproven efficacy in the long term (10). These low-carb diets are inconsistent with the advice of government agencies and non-governmental professional associations such as the American Dietetic Association, American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association, and American Cancer Society (15). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has oversight over food labeling issues, likewise emphasizes calorie balance over fad diets (17). A 2002 article in FDA Consumer warned: “The cabbage soup diet, the low-carbohydrate and high-protein diet, and other so-called ‘fad’ diets are fundamentally different from federal nutrition dietary guidelines and are not recommended for losing weight” (18). The Federal Trade Commission, which has oversight over food advertising, also supports a strong warning against fad diets. A Federal Trade Commission report by Harvard scientist George Blackburn argued, “By promoting unrealistic expectations and false hopes, [fad diets] doom current weight-loss efforts to failure, and make future attempts less likely to succeed” (19).

The Dietary Guidelines do not endorse the type of dairy weight loss claim made in The Calcium Key. According to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee's meeting summary for March, 2004, “Dr. [Janet] King presented the Subcommittee's statement on this topic: ‘While the evidence is inconclusive that dairy foods help manage body weight, there is no evidence that consuming the recommended intakes of low-fat dairy foods increases body weight.’” Instead of endorsing the dairy weight loss claims, the advisory committee and the Guidelines simply noted the other virtues of low-fat dairy foods (1, 10).

Commodity Checkoff Programs

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Federal Dietary Guidance about Healthy Weight
  5. Commodity Checkoff Programs
  6. Weight Loss Messages in Checkoff Advertising
  7. Conclusions
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

Although national commodity checkoff programs are a recent policy innovation, dating to the 1980s, they have roots in voluntary producer self-help associations from the 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, the National Dairy Council was founded in 1915 as a voluntary association. The first small regional mandatory producer payments for marketing, enforced by the federal government, were established as part of the broader Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937. This law was one of several Depression era policies that sought to address the American “farm problem,” characterized by chronic overproduction and low commodity prices throughout much of the 20th century (20).

The U.S. Congress established the Dairy Promotion and Research Board—the first of the large national checkoff boards—in 1983. The older National Dairy Council is now managed by the checkoff program's management corporation, Dairy Management Inc. Congress established the beef checkoff board in 1985 “to strengthen and expand a foundering beef market through the use of advertising and promotion” (20). Congress also established the pork checkoff board in 1985 and the fluid milk checkoff board in 1990. To avoid the difficulty of writing new legislation for each new board, Congress, in 1996, set up a standing procedure for USDA authorization of new checkoff programs (4).

A common justification given for checkoff boards is that a “public goods” problem hinders commodity producers who would like to advertise on their own (21). Economic theory holds that government assistance is required for spending on “public goods,” such as roads and national defense, because private voluntary contributions will be insufficient. In contrast with the producer of a branded product, a typical beef farmer cannot afford to advertise with his or her own private money, because any market benefits will accrue to beef farmers in general. According to this reasoning, public intervention is required for adequate beef advertising.

However, increased meat and high-fat dairy consumption is not a public good in the usual sense. Indeed, food products are the archetypal private good. In contrast with roads and national defense, one person's consumption unambiguously prevents another person's consumption of the same unit of food. A public goods justification would be compelling only with the addition of an argument that Americans consume too little hamburger and cheese, for example, or that they are exposed to too little advertising for their psychological health.

Instead of providing a sound public goods rationale, Congress’ policy motivation for federal intervention was, without apology, to support the private sector interests of the dairy, beef, and pork producers. For example, the beef checkoff program's mission statement is: “The Cattlemen's Beef Promotion and Research Board is dedicated to improving producer profitability, expanding consumer demand for beef, and strengthening beef's position in the marketplace.” The title of the board's annual report is, “It's About Demand” (22).

Supporters continue to describe the checkoff programs as private-sector “self-help” organizations (23), but this is misleading. The checkoff programs recently have become more clearly identified as federal programs for three reasons.

First, producer support for the dairy, beef, and pork checkoff programs seems to have declined in recent years, so their continuation relies more heavily on federal authority. To take just one example, in a 1988 referendum, the pork checkoff program was supported by 77% of producers. Then, in a 2000 referendum, a majority of producers voted to discontinue the pork checkoff and the Secretary of Agriculture directed the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) to shut down the program. However, the National Pork Producers Council, a private trade association, sued to continue the program. In 2001, USDA reached an agreement with the Council to continue the program. Despite the referendum showing opposition from more than one half of pork producers, USDA enforces collection of the mandatory assessment from all pork producers (24).

Second, although USDA's oversight of the checkoff boards was fairly cursory in their early years, the department's involvement has intensified. In the late 1990s, the USDA Inspector General strongly criticized the financial management and federal oversight of several checkoff boards, and federal involvement has been strengthened in response (25). For example, in a 1998 report, the Inspector General's office found “serious problems” with the Fluid Milk Board: “AMS provided little active oversight of the Board's activities. The Board entered into sole-source contracts without any competition to ensure the most cost-effective procurement and without obtaining AMS’ approval before the effective date of the contracts.” The audit report recommended that USDA suspend the operations of the Fluid Milk Board and restructure its management. While the department declined to follow that recommendation and asserts that Congress intended the programs to be largely producer-run, AMS reported that it has enhanced its oversight of financial management and now approves contracts for all of the Board's activities.

Third, to defend the checkoff programs against litigation, the federal government has declared that checkoff advertising is “government speech.” In a series of lawsuits, dissident producers who disapproved of the mandatory checkoff payments claimed that the programs violated their First Amendment right to free speech by forcing them to support commercial speech with which they disagreed (4, 20). In response, the federal government successfully argued that checkoff programs do not force producers to support private commercial speech with which they disagree. Rather, these programs force producers to support “government speech,” which is not subject to the same constitutional objection. In May 2005, by a 6 to 3 margin, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of USDA and the checkoff board. In his majority opinion, upholding the checkoff program, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote: “The message of the promotional campaigns is effectively controlled by the Federal Government itself. The message set out in the beef promotions is from beginning to end the message established by the Federal Government” (26).

The government's stand in this matter is important, because federal communication about nutrition is supposed to be consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Eric Hentges was a vice president of the pork checkoff program until his February 2003 appointment to lead USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, which is responsible for the Dietary Guidelines. He testified to Congress in September 2003, “The Dietary Guidelines serve as the vehicle for the Federal Government to speak with ‘one voice’ on nutrition issues for the health of the American public” (27). The most recent Dietary Guidelines say in their introduction, ‘Because of its focus on health promotion and risk reduction, the Dietary Guidelines form the basis of federal food, nutrition education, and information programs’” (1).

Weight Loss Messages in Checkoff Advertising

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Federal Dietary Guidance about Healthy Weight
  5. Commodity Checkoff Programs
  6. Weight Loss Messages in Checkoff Advertising
  7. Conclusions
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

The marketing strategies of the federally sponsored checkoff boards are based on research about what advertising messages convince consumers to buy more of each product. The 1996 farm law requires each checkoff program to conduct a periodic independent evaluation of its effectiveness. For the fluid milk and dairy programs, in particular, USDA/AMS make an extensive annual report to Congress each summer, which includes a summary of the most recent independent evaluation. In addition to the formal evaluations, the checkoff programs have financed other relevant research, some of which has made it to the public domain.

The evaluation of the beef checkoff, by Ronald Ward of the University of Florida, found that the beef checkoff advertising and promotion were effective, in the sense of somewhat increasing overall beef demand compared with what it would be in the absence of the checkoff program (28). The increased demand was modest but more than enough to repay the cost of the producer assessments. Because beef plays an important role in fast food restaurant menus, Ward found that attitudes toward fast food were one of the strongest predictors of beef demand. Indeed, these fast food attitudes were more influential than concerns about cholesterol or fat. Consumer concerns about fat and cholesterol tended to reduce demand for beef, but these concerns have been fading in recent years, while concern about obesity has been increasing. Ironically, perhaps because of the popularity of high-protein weight loss diets, consumer concern about obesity did not seem to harm demand for beef. “Probably the most interesting result from this health measure,” Ward concluded, “is that dieting has little impact on the whether or not you consume beef.”

The evaluation for the pork checkoff program found several of the same patterns (29). Specific indications of health awareness were associated with lower demand for pork, but, paradoxically, neither having a high BMI nor being on a low-calorie diet caused any harm to pork demand.

For the dairy checkoff programs, the industry research recommended increased emphasis on marketing through restaurants (2, 30) and also dairy weight loss claims (31). Fluid milk has traditionally been consumed at home and at school, whereas cheese is heavily marketed for both home consumption and restaurant uses, such as pizza. Schmit and Kaiser recommended that the dairy checkoff programs increase their cheese promotions targeted at the restaurant market (30). A USDA report to Congress on the fluid milk and dairy checkoff programs found that each 10% increase in food away from home (as in restaurants) would contribute to a 1.1% increase in demand for cheese. “The positive contribution to per capita [consumption] is largely captured by cheese usage in restaurants,” USDA's report said, “particularly in fast-food businesses with burger, taco, and pizza products” (2).

According to a milk and weight loss study prepared by the checkoff-funded Milk Processors Education Program, dairy weight loss claims that consumers find scientifically plausible would be highly effective: “Benefit claims simply stating that milk is good for you, or is an effective way to lose weight, show the most promise for inspiring consumption of 3–4 servings of milk a day” (31).

These conclusions from checkoff sponsored research seem to be reflected in the nutrition and weight loss messages of the checkoff boards’ advertising campaigns. An important part of the Beef Board's marketing strategy is to promote restaurant and food service sales of beef sandwiches, such as steak sandwiches and cheeseburgers. According to a 2004 Beef Board analysis, sales of all these sandwiches are soaring (32). The very fastest growing sales were for steak sandwiches with cheese, with 18.9% growth in 2003.

In the fall of 2004, the Board collaborated with Quiznos sandwich shops on a special promotion of a Quiznos Steakhouse Beef Dip Sub, which “features tender roast beef smothered in rich French onion sauce, and melted Swiss cheese, served in a toasted Quiznos roll, with a side of beefy, pan roasted au jus” (33). The sandwich is available on Low Carb Toasty Flatbread. Neither Quiznos, which was contacted through the national corporate website, nor USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, which is supposed to have approved this promotion, provided nutrition facts information for this sandwich in response to requests from the author. The Quiznos corporate website provides a tally of “net carbs” for some of the chain's sandwiches (34). The terminology “net carbs,” which has no FDA-approved legal definition, refers to the system for counting and limiting carbohydrate consumption in high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets. Like the reference to “low carb” flatbread, the provision of “net carb” information without other nutrition context endorses fad weight loss strategies that are criticized in official federal communications about nutrition.

A website from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, accompanied by the beef checkoff logo, offers very different advice from the weight control message of the Dietary Guidelines: “Advice to reduce calories for weight control often focuses on reducing calories from fat and possibly limiting foods from the meat and dairy groups. The truth is, naturally nutrient-rich foods such as lean beef can be part of the weight control solution” (35). The website suggests a link between higher beef consumption and reduced risk of overweight and obesity: “In fact, as the incidence of obesity or being overweight has increased, meat consumption has decreased among the U.S. population.” The website's conclusion is, “Beef plays an important role in overall health, including a role in weight control.”

Similarly, the Pork Board promotes low-carb diets through a special motto and logo: “Counting carbs? Pork's Perfect!” According to a Pork Board newsletter, “The ‘Counting Carbs’ initiative is part of ongoing checkoff promotions to highlight pork's role in a healthy diet and to encourage consumers to buy and consume more pork” (36). The Pork Board recently approved $750,000 for checkoff-funded efforts to increase consumer demand, “particularly for people who are interested in low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets.” In addition to the “Counting Carbs?” motto, these efforts use the slogans, “Not all proteins are created equal” and the “Power of Protein.”

There is a sharp contrast between the Pork Board's marketing to the nutrition community and its marketing to food services, including restaurants. The board's special website for nutritionists (www.porkandhealth.org) includes strong warnings against low-carb diets: “Unfortunately, these fad diets may have negative effects on your body” (37).

Meanwhile, the Pork Board's website for food services (www.porkfoodservice.com) recommends low-carb marketing: “There's no denying that the low-carbohydrate/high-protein phenomena has taken the food world by storm. According to some reports, up to 50 million consumers have tried some type of low-carbohydrate diet plan” (38). The website favorably quotes a “leading” chef, Marlin Kaplan, saying, “There's no denying this diet. If you are a restaurant operator not offering high-protein, low-carb options on your menu, then you are not listening to your customer.”

According to the USDA's 2004 report to Congress on the dairy and fluid milk checkoff programs, the Dairy Board's campaign with the motto, “Ahh, The Power of Cheese,” is targeted at “cheese lovers,” with an emphasis on “cheese enhancers” and “cheese cravers.” The “enhancers” use cheese in their cooking, whereas the “cravers” eat cheese straight on its own (2). In April 2005, the Dairy Board began a collaboration with Pizza Hut to promote a three-cheese stuffed crust pizza. This pizza features an exceptional amount of cheese. A single slice of the plain cheese version contains 35% of the federal government's recommended daily value for saturated fat and 39% of the daily value for salt, based on a 2000-calorie diet. The Dairy Board featured the Pizza Hut promotion on the front page of its website, with the address www.ilovecheese.com.

Recent Fluid Milk Board and Dairy Board promotions build on the high-dairy weight loss dietary message of Michael Zemel's research (39) and book, The Calcium Key (14). The need for scientific credibility creates pressure to publicize scientific positions that were not accepted by the Dietary Guidelines. For example, a “milk mustache” advertisement features the slender actress Kelly Preston, with accompanying text that implies an association between higher milk consumption and lower body weight. According to the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, as of the fourth quarter of 2004, the weight loss message was a key part of the “3-A-Day of Dairy” campaign, whose total budget was $34 million in 2004 and $46 million in 2005. The program's new logo says, “3-a-Day. Milk-cheese-yogurt. Burn more fat, lose weight.” The agency's annual report to Congress for 2005 states that promotions with weight loss claims were central to the fluid milk and dairy checkoff programs in 2004: “[B]oth programs used the role of calcium-rich dairy products in successful weight loss as a central theme and focal point for its activities in 2004” (5).

Conclusions

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Federal Dietary Guidance about Healthy Weight
  5. Commodity Checkoff Programs
  6. Weight Loss Messages in Checkoff Advertising
  7. Conclusions
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

It seems unlikely that any government-sponsored advertising strategy for all of the foods supported by checkoff programs could be found to be consistent with the Dietary Guidelines. One must ask whether it is possible to eat more beef, more pork, more cheese, and more eggs, in answer to the checkoff advertising, while simultaneously consuming more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy, in answer to the Dietary Guidelines, and furthermore moderately reducing calorie intake overall.

In addition to their intended effect on overall consumption, the checkoff campaigns have a strong incentive to promote nutrition and obesity messages that are more specifically at odds with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The mainstream of federal dietary advice emphasizes calorie balance and warns against fad weight loss diets focusing on particular nutrients. The checkoff programs rely on exactly such diets to counteract a major constraint they perceive in consumer concerns about nutrition and obesity.

These contradictions have not been reconciled, perhaps because the checkoff programs have only recently drifted into having a strong identity as federal programs. Whereas the checkoff programs were once portrayed as producer self-help institutions, they now rely on the federal government to enforce collection of the mandatory assessments in the face of considerable opposition from individual producers. While the checkoff programs once operated with minimal USDA oversight, they are now monitored more closely, and whereas the federal government itself used to treat the programs as private sector sponsors of advertising messages, the government now claims the checkoff messages as its own “government speech.”

After the Supreme Court's recent endorsement of this government speech doctrine, the inconsistencies between the government's message in the Dietary Guidelines and in the checkoff promotions deserve renewed attention. One direct solution would be for Congress to end federal support for the checkoff programs on grounds that they benefit only one sector of the citizenry and fail to serve a broader public interest. While the intent of this solution would be “pro-nutrition,” it could be portrayed in Congressional debate as “anti-farmer.” Another solution would be for Congress to pass a resolution simply declaring, “The federal government's ‘speech’ about food guidance and nutrition must in its entirety be consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

This restrained solution would simply reaffirm principles that many observers might have thought were already established.

Acknowledgments

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Federal Dietary Guidance about Healthy Weight
  5. Commodity Checkoff Programs
  6. Weight Loss Messages in Checkoff Advertising
  7. Conclusions
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References

There was no funding/outside support for this study. This manuscript was improved by helpful comments from the journal's referees, colleagues at the Friedman School, and participants at a workshop on public policy and obesity sponsored by the University of Baltimore in May 2005. All opinions and errors are the author's.

Footnotes
  • 1

    Nonstandard abbreviations: USDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture; FDA, Food and Drug Administration; AMS, Agricultural Marketing Service.

  • The costs of publication of this article were defrayed, in part, by the payment of page charges. This article must, therefore, be hereby marked “advertisement” in accordance with 18 U.S.C. Section 1734 solely to indicate this fact.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Federal Dietary Guidance about Healthy Weight
  5. Commodity Checkoff Programs
  6. Weight Loss Messages in Checkoff Advertising
  7. Conclusions
  8. Acknowledgments
  9. References
  • 1
    U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture (2005) Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2005. 6th ed U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture Washington, DC.
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    Becker, G. S. (2005) Federal Farm Promotion (‘Checkoff’) Programs (revised). Congressional Research Service Washington, DC.
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    U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service. (2005) Report to Congress on the National Dairy Promotion and Research Program and the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Program U.S. Department of Agriculture Washington, DC.
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    Becker, G. S. (2004) Federal Farm Promotion (‘Checkoff’) Programs Congressional Research Service Washington, DC.
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