Got fat?

Saturday, November 13, 2010; A18

REPUBLICANS SAY their midterm election victory shows that the American people want to shrink the federal government and make it smarter. If that's true, and if the new GOP majority in the House wants to deliver on its promises, we can think of no better place to start than Dairy Management. This little-known appendage of the Agriculture Department exists for one purpose: to encourage Americans to drink more milk and eat more cheese, so that dairy farmers can make more money. This is not our idea of an urgent national priority.

To the contrary, annual cheese consumption in the United States has grown from 11 pounds per person in 1970 to 33 pounds per person now, which may help explain the rise in obesity and related illnesses. Dairy Management supports this troubling trend by encouraging fast-food restaurants to market new products laden with high-fat cheese. Its efforts include helping Domino's develop extra-cheese pizzas containing two-thirds of the daily recommended amount of saturated fat per slice, according to a recent story in the New York Times.

Dairy Management does not cost the taxpayers much money - at least not directly. The corporation, created by the Clinton administration in 1995 pursuant to the Dairy Production Stabilization Act of 1983, derives its budget of almost $140 million a year mostly from a mandatory assessment on all milk production in the continental United States, which farmers voted to impose on themselves. No doubt that gets passed along to consumers in the price of milk, butter, cheese and yogurt. But the secretary of agriculture appoints the board that supervises the expenditure of the money and approves Dairy Management's marketing campaigns. There are similar entities designed to increase demand for other commodities such as beef and pork. The Supreme Court has called these programs "government speech" that does not violate the Constitution.

Constitutional is not the same as wise, however. Even if this cheese-peddling corporation doesn't waste government money, it wastes government authority. Dairy farmers are perfectly capable of buying their own advertising. And shoppers are perfectly capable of deciding whether they want more cheese. The federal government's only role should be to disseminate objective nutritional information free from conflicts of interest, real or apparent. Working to boost the demand for certain commodities is the epitome of big, stupid government. We'll be very interested to see whether the new Republican House has the courage to say so.

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