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USDA’s fast-food partnerships to push cheese is a health conflict

USDA’s fast-food partnerships to push cheese is a health conflict
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The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans include a photograph of a cheeseburger and a slice of pepperoni pizza, warning Americans to avoid these cheese-smothered products. Good advice. After all, cheeseburgers and pizza are loaded with calories, saturated fat, and sodium, and they are fueling America’s epidemics of obesity, heart disease, and hypertension. So why does the USDA undercut its own educational effort by overseeing Dairy Management Inc.’s (DMI\) funding of promotions with Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, and other fast-food outlets to push consumers to buy new, even cheesier versions of these same foods?

In February, DMI partnered with Pizza Hut to add 25 percent more cheese to the company’s pan pizza in 6,000 U.S. locations, hoping to unload 150 million pounds of milk annually. A month later, DMI announced that it had worked onsite at McDonald’s headquarters to create 30 percent larger cheddar cheese slices for McDonald’s Signature Crafted Recipes sandwiches and the Egg White Delight McMuffin served at 14,000 U.S. locations.

 

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The USDA’s effort is based on the notion that dairy farmers cannot stand on their own two feet, don’t know how to diversify, and need Uncle Sam to step in. And it’s true that dairy profits continue to decline. So DMI spends millions of dollars a year working with fast-food restaurants to push cheesy, high-fat products on the American public. You get fat, they make money.

DMI hasn’t always been so transparent. My organization, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, first exposed DMI’s activities in 2001. We learned through documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act about a DMI meeting on Dec. 5, 2000, called the Cheese Forum.

A meeting presentation called Cheese Lovers and “Triggering the Crave” outlined how DMI planned to work with the fast-food industry to create new products to promote “cheese craving.” Another presentation actually said “Wendy’s and DMI share common goals: If you sell more cheeseburgers, then we sell more cheese!” The result was a contract with Wendy’s to market the Cheddar Lover’s Bacon Cheeseburger, which sold 2.25 million pounds of cheese, 380 tons of fat, and 1.2 tons of cholesterol.

And Wendy’s wasn’t alone. DMI worked with Burger King to introduce the Extreme Double Cheeseburger, which had two slices each of cheddar and Monterey Jack cheese plus cheese sauce, and with Pizza Hut to create the Insider Pizza, which had a pound of six different cheeses. Taco Bell and Subway also introduced new items.

There is no way to reconcile the USDA’s oversight of DMI with the Dietary Guidelines, which list pizza, burgers, and dairy as leading sources of saturated fat. A paragraph in the Dietary Guidelines even says it “includes recommendations on saturated fats because of the strong relationship of this nutrient to a health outcome (CVD risk).”

In fact, new research shows that just one high-fat meal containing dairy triggers bodily responses that may lead to heart disease.

The average American already eats 35 pounds of cheese per year — the most since the government started tracking cheese consumption in 1909. With DMI’s ongoing efforts to unload unwanted dairy products through new fast-food items, that number will only grow, keeping heart disease America’s deadliest threat.

By creating an ever-bigger market for unhealthful food products, DMI is unwittingly expanding the market for cholesterol-lowering drugs, insulin syringes, and antihypertensive medications, further inflating the medical costs that are already straining American citizens and American employers.

Enough is enough. As the USDA currently works to make the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans process more transparent, it is also time that that the USDA only promote foods that keep our families healthy.  

Neal Barnard, M.D., F.A.C.C., is president and founder of the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and author of The Cheese Trap. Dr. Barnard is a physician, clinical researcher, author, and an adjunct associate professor of medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences.