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Article provokes anti-cheese firestorm

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A cool glass of milk is an American icon of health. But a New York Times article over the weekend casts milk's dairy cousin, cheese, as a poster child of artery-clogging, obesity-inducing fast food.

The article details the efforts of a USDA-sponsored marketing agency called Dairy Management to get people to eat more cheese. Among its projects is a partnership with Domino's to put 40% more cheese on its pizzas. That effort included a $12 million advertising campaign, paid for by Dairy Marketing.
Meanwhile, the USDA itself says cheese is the largest source of cholesterol-causing saturated fat in the American diet.

The Times article set off a flurry of blog posts and opinion pieces with outraged titles like "Strap on Your Feedbags" and "Cheese Industrial Complex." Some commentators called for the new Congress to axe the program as a symbol of excessive government spending.

Reaction in the dairy industry has been muted. But Beth Meyer of the American Dairy Association emphasizes a fact that appears halfway through the article. Dairy farmers - not taxpayers - foot most of the $140 million a year bill to fund Dairy Management as a part of their monthly milk check.

"It's 15 cents per hundredweight," Meyer says. "Ten cents of that money stays local for organizations such as ours, based in Syracuse, NY, so of that goes nationally. So it's really a program of dairy farmers supporting promotion of their own product, which obviously makes a lot of sense."

Still, Dairy Management did get more than $5 million through the USDA last year to promote sales overseas.

Dairy Management is credited with helping to slow the decline of milk drinking with its popular "Got Milk?" campaign.

Meyer says she doesn't think the criticism of the program will hurt North Country farmers. She says there's a place for cheese in moderate eating. "Cheeses are an excellent source of calcium," Meyer says. "They're a nutrient dense food, and we talk about fitting foods into the daily diet, so we think this continues to be a strong program for the dairy farmers in northern New York and certainly throughout our marketing area."

Dairy Management's efforts raise thorny questions about the balance between supporting farms and promoting good nutrition. Local agriculture groups across the North Country encourage farmers to sell so-called "value added" products like cheeses, maple candies, or jellies and jams. Many of them are high in calories.

David Sommerstein put the issue to Bernadette Logozar, local food specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension.

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