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USDA program looks to add more slices to your life

By Brad Plumer, The Washington Post

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Itís no secret that Americans eat a lot of pizza. In fact, around 13 percent of the country is eating a slice or two on any given day, according to a recent report from the Agriculture Department.

It all adds up to a lot of calories: On an average day, the report notes, pizza provides 6 percent of the total caloric intake for American children and 4 percent for American adults.

But thereís also a subtle policy angle here. Pizza is popular because itís delicious. But the roaring success of pizza isnít entirely a free-market story. ďIn recent years, [the USDA] has spent many millions of dollars to increase pizza consumption among U.S. children and adults,Ē Parke Wilde of Tufts University wrote on his U.S. Food Policy blog.

Heís referring to the USDAís ďdairy checkoff program,Ē which levies a small fee on milk (15 cents for every hundredweight of milk sold or used in dairy products) and raised about $202 million in 2011. The agency uses that money to promote products such as milk and cheese. And, it turns out, pizza.

The USDA claims its checkoff program has been well worth it: For every $1 it spends on increasing cheese demand, it estimates that farmers get $4.43 in additional revenue. But the results have been mixed. Milk consumption has declined in recent decades, while cheese consumption has soared.

The program also helps pizzamakers, which use one-quarter of the nationís cheese. A 2010 USDA report detailed how Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), a corporation funded by these government checkoff fees, spent $35 million in a partnership with Dominoís to boost pizza sales. ďAccording to Patrick Doyle, President and CEO of Dominoís Pizza, ĎDMI support has allowed us to focus some advertising dollars on areas we would not have considered otherwise. The Wisconsin 6 Cheese pizza has twice the cheese of a regular pizza, but we had neither developed nor advertised such a product. DMI helped fund the research and media to launch this product,Ē according to the 2010 USDA report.

That report also chronicled how the dairy checkoff program also worked with McDonaldís to launch McCafe specialty coffees and three new burgers with two slices of cheese on them. It also helped Yoplait develop new yogurt-chip technology. The program was renewed in the most recent farm bill.

So whatís the problem? Critics of this program often note that efforts to promote fruits and vegetables havenít received nearly the same level of support as dairy and meat products (a few fruits do have their own checkoff programs, including blueberries and watermelons, but not many). That imbalance doesnít explain the popularity of pizza, obviously, but itís one extra unseen force at work.