“Americans now eat an average of 33 pounds of cheese a year, nearly triple the 1970 rate,” writes New York Times investigative reporter Michael Moss in this article about Dairy Management Inc., a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) “marketing creation” with a $140 million annual budget “largely financed by a government-mandated fee on the dairy industry.” According to Moss, “The organization’s activities, revealed through interviews and records, provide a stark example of inherent conflicts in the Agriculture Department’s historical roles as both marketer of agriculture products and America’s nutrition police.”

Moss claims that despite federal efforts to curb the consumption of saturated fats, Dairy Management has “worked with restaurants to expand their menus with cheese-laden products,” in addition to spending “millions of dollars on research to support a national advertising campaign promoting the notion that people could lose weight by consuming more dairy products.” His exposé opines that the group’s “relentless” marketing for years centered on these weight-loss claims until they caught the Federal Trade Commission’s attention.

“The [USDA] should not be involved in these programs that are promoting foods that we are consuming too much of already,” a former member of the government’s nutrition advisory committee told Moss. “A small amount of good-flavored cheese can be compatible with a healthy diet, but consumption in the U.S. is enormous and way beyond what is optimally healthy.”

Meanwhile, New York University Professor Marion Nestle has commented on the article in a November 7, 2010, interview posted to her Food Politics blog. Drawing attention to USDA’s complicated relationship with “dairy lobbying groups” like Dairy Management, Nestle notes that since its inception in the 1860s, “USDA’s role was to promote U.S. agricultural production and sales… Only in the 1970s, did USDA pick up all those pesky food assistance programs and capture the ‘lead federal agency’ role in providing dietary advice to the public.”

Nestle proposes moving “dietary guidance to a more independent federal agency,” such as the National Institutes of Health, and urges others to “recognize the ways in which corporate lobbyists corrupt our food system and do something about election campaign laws.” She also lauds The New York Times for considering “an article about USDA checkoff programs to be front-page news, and in the right-hand column yet, marking it as the most important news story of the day.”