Posts Tagged federal government

The curious case of a federal agency battling saturated fat consumption while also selling cheese

This story made me say, I’m sure I’m not stupid. But I’m confused now because you, Uncle Sam, are telling me two very different things. WHAT do you want me to do? Besides blog about you and complain, as more people should do about this …

In “While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales,” the New York Times reported how the U.S. Department of Agriculture tells us that saturated fat contributes to obesity and heart disease.

But that agency also sells cheeseYes! A Domino’s Pizza campaign associated with this federal agency increased sales of pizzas with six cheeses on the top and two more cheeses in the crust. With this much saturated fat:

According to the NYTimes, a group called Dairy Management affiliated with the Department of Agriculture has a $140 million annual budget to get more cheese on restaurant menus. It has over 160 employees with skills in product development and marketing. Dairy Management helped Domino’s create new pizzas with 40% more cheese and created and paid for a $12 million marketing campaign to sell the Domino’s pizzas. Excuse me, but I thought marketing Domino’s pizza was Domino’s job not the government’s job? At any rate the government did a good job with this — “sales soared by double digits.”

So which — telling or selling — is more effective at influencing behavior? Well … the marketing initiatives of Dairy Management successfully increased cheese sales, and cheese is now the largest source of saturated fat in our diets. Dairy Management had a hand in Pizza Hut’s Cheesy Bites Pizza, Burger King’s Cheesy Angus Bacon cheeseburger and TenderCrisp chicken sandwich both of which featured two slices of American cheese, a slice of pepper jack and cheesy sauce. This all helped cheese sales grow by 30 million pounds. Dairy Management is also behind the “Got Milk?” campaign which is slowing the decline in milk consumption among children. Granted, the calcium and vitamins can have beneficial effects for children, but this marketing prowess is also used to sell more dairy products to Americans than our health needs.

Meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture distributes brochures like this with nutrition tips. Have you ever seen this brochure? But we’ve all heard of “Got Milk?” and we’re all seeing pizzas with cheese tucked inside the crust in addition to the mounds of cheese on top. If there was anywhere else to squeeze cheese on a pizza, they’d put it there too.

And this in the New York Times story is worrisome:

In one instance, Dairy Management spent millions of dollars on research to support a national advertising campaign promoting the notion that people could lose weight by consuming more dairy products, records and interviews show. The campaign went on for four years, ending in 2007, even though other researchers — one paid by Dairy Management itself — found no such weight-loss benefits.

“Great news for dieters,” Dairy Management said in an advertisement in People magazine in 2005. “Clinical studies show that people on a reduced-calorie diet who consume three servings of milk, cheese or yogurt each day can lose significantly more weight and more body fat than those who just cut calories.”

Um, those of you familiar with Weight Watchers — the only weight loss program proven by strong research studies to effectively change long-term behavior affecting weight — know that recommendation doesn’t work with the WW point system unless you’re willing to be very very hungry.

And consider this:

Dr. Walter C. Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health and a former member of the federal government’s nutrition advisory committee, said: “… 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.”

Does our country’s obesity problem really need help to keep it growing? See it grow here:

Now I don’t have a personal problem with eating cheese. We once went to Madison, Wisconsin just to stock up at Fromagination. If you got between me and the last piece of chevre on earth, I would beat you up to get it. I wouldn’t care how big you are. It’s chevre! (OK maybe I do have a personal problem with cheese but it’s certainly not against cheese)

I have a problem with government institutions influencing behavior that adversely affects public health. We already have plenty in the private sector who have enough motivation and means to do that on their own.

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How to reach a whole country like the conversation about cell phones & driving

I’m watching the 2nd USDOT Distracted Driving Summit online today. Reflecting on the past year.  Sharing a recipe on how to make a sweeping national difference — quickly — on a public health issue. It’s possible.

This recipe has been cookin’ to change national beliefs and behavior about using cell phones while driving:

  • The backing of a very high level government official — in this case, a member of the President’s Cabinet, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.
  • Not only have the “backing” of a very high level government official — he or she should publicly “go on a rampage” about your issue, as Secretary LaHood often describes his mission. He is on a rampage to stop crashes and deaths due to distracted driving.
  • The government official should have a very public presence and excellent communication skills.
  • The government official should be in a position to influence change in federal regulation. As announced at the Distracted Driving Summit today, truck drivers must follow a USDOT regulation limiting their cell phone use.
  • Federal financial resources must be allocated to fund proven effective behavior change strategies.
  • Encourage people affected by your issue to start a national advocacy organization so the public hears their stories. They are also powerful advocates when lobbying legislators and others for change.
  • Recruit relevant nationally-recognized organizations to see their vested interest in your issue. Changing the issue should be among their core goals. Organizations that are good at getting others to listen, that are good at getting media attention, are best.
  • The relevant nationally-recognized organizations will help move change faster if they are well-connected in all sectors of politics, business, media.
  • When the above support is vocal, the media will report on what these organizations and people are talking about. And media drives more media like a snowball down a mountain. Watch it roll!
  • Reach out to public and private employers who can change their employees’ environment for the better. People working full-time spend most of their waking hours at work. The workplace has a huge influence on social norms. Team up with organizations that specialize in reaching employers. And as those working in public health know, influencing employer policies can make sweeping change.
  • Share compelling data about the impact of your issue. I work on traffic safety and there’s (unfortunately) no shortage of compelling data about the toll of crashes. Leverage the data.
  • If your issue can be addressed with state laws, develop a prioritized plan to advocate. There are 50 states. You won’t be able to work in all. If your issue is rolling, the public is talking, and it’s likely state legislators are already taking action in response to the public desire. This angle is worthy of a whole blog on its own so I won’t get in detail beyond listing it as very important for change.
  • Fully use all online communications available today — blogs, Twitter, Facebook, online webcasts. I mean, fully. What does this mean? Watch for a post later with an example. 

This may look overwhelming. But it’s possible. Those of us in public health know population-level change is not easy and this is what it takes. Think Thanksgiving Dinner cooking, not frozen food in the microwave.

I show a pizza recipe above because I think of public health change like a pizza — many ingredients are needed to bring change: education, social norms, policy, enforcement, technology, physical environment, etc.

This change has happened for many issues and it’s happening right now for cell phones and driving. I’m thankful to work in the middle of it, to see how these ingredients all work to influence massive change. It’s possible!

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