U.S. Pushes Cheese — And Warns Against It

Eat more cheese: It's good for you and can even help you lose weight. That's the message coming from one wing of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Eat LESS cheese: It's high in saturated fat — and we eat too much of it. That's the message coming from another wing of that very same government agency. NPR's Melissa Block talks to New York Times reporter Michael Moss, who has written about this contradictory message.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Eat more cheese. It's good for you. It can even help you lose weight.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

That's the message coming from one wing of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

SIEGEL: Eat less cheese. It's high in saturated fat, and we eat too much of it.

BLOCK: That's the message coming from another wing of that very same government agency, and the eat-more-cheese side is winning.

Reporter Michael Moss has written about this contradictory message in The New York Times. Welcome to the program.

Mr. MICHAEL MOSS (Reporter, The New York Times): Thank you so much.

BLOCK: And, Michael, how much cheese do we Americans eat?

Mr. MOSS: On average, we're up to about 33 pounds a year.

BLOCK: And that's an increase over time?

Mr. MOSS: Triple the rate - nearly triple the rate in 1970.

BLOCK: Wow, okay. Well, how much do you think of that increase in consumption is due to the group that you describe in your story that ran yesterday, a group called Dairy Management?

Mr. MOSS: Both Dairy Management and the USDA, which oversees its operations, sort of pride themselves in the effect that they've had in increasing dairy consumption, including cheese.

And they like to talk about sort of specific deals that they do with companies. And in that case, they bandy about numbers of 30, 40, $50 million for any one product development that they're engaged in to increase cheese in those products.

BLOCK: Well, let's talk about this group, Dairy Management, which I'd never heard of before. It's actually a creation of the Agriculture Department, and they are promoting cheese consumption in this country. How are they funded, and what's the mission?

Mr. MOSS: Dairy Management is funded largely by a government-imposed levy on the dairy industry. They do, however, receive directly from the USDA several million dollars a year as a means of helping the - or rather, sort of forcing the dairy industry to create new markets for dairy products, including cheese.

BLOCK: The way you describe it, Dairy Management works hand in hand with restaurant chains. So if you're wondering why Domino's or Pizza Hut has cheese now in the crust of the pizza or why Domino's Pizza has a pizza coming out called the Wisconsin, which has six cheeses on top and two in the crust, look back to Dairy Management.

Mr. MOSS: So back in the mid-'90s, in fact, people who worked for Dairy Management then at the time told me that they actually had to go out to the restaurant industry to convince them that cheese was a great thing to include in their products.

These days, restaurant chains are tending to come to Dairy Management. Dairy Management has an agreement with Domino's where Dairy Management helped develop a $12 million advertising promotion campaign to help promote these new, cheesier lines of pizza that Domino's has come out with.

BLOCK: And USDA thinks this is great?

Mr. MOSS: The part of the USDA that - whose mission is to promote agriculture products thinks this is fabulous. The other part of the USDA that is in essence America's nutrition police, that part has been pushing back on cheese consumption because of the linkages to heart disease and obesity.

BLOCK: Michael, did you go to the Agriculture Department and ask them to explain this contradiction between the conflicting messages that they're sending out?

Mr. MOSS: They made a couple points. One, they said they are helping farmers and the rural economy, and there's certainly a lot of truth to the fact that much of the dairy community is hurting as dairy prices fluctuate year to year.

They also made the point that as Americans have cut way back on their consumption of milk, cheese has become an important source of calcium. Nutritionists point out that there are other products - leafy greens, broccoli has great - amounts of calcium. And also, there are ways of getting calcium without depending on cheese, per se, milk of course being - low-fat and non-fat milk being one of the best.

BLOCK: That's New York Times reporter Michael Moss, talking about his story on the USDA's simultaneous promotion of cheese and its warnings about the nutritional value of cheese.

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