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Opinion America can’t eat its way out of this massive cheese problem

A worker arranges cheese for sale at a grocery store in St. Petersburg in 2014. (Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters)

As if we didn't have enough to worry about already, here comes a new issue: The Great Cheese Glut of 2016. The Wall Street Journal reports that as of March 31, 1.19 billion pounds had accumulated in commercial cold-storage freezers across the United States, the largest stockpile ever.

This affects an entire global industry, from Wisconsin Dells to Whole Foods shelves. Yet each American would have to eat an extra 3 pounds of cheese this year, on top of the 36 pounds we already consume per capita, to eliminate the big yellow mountain. Even for a society that piles the stuff on sandwiches and rolls it into pizza crusts, that’s a tall order.

Thanks, Obama!

Just kidding. It's more like "Thanks, Putin." In August 2014, he banned European Union agricultural imports as payback for E.U. sanctions punishing Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Putin struck just as the European Union was ending dairy production limits, so the loss of the Russian market was doubly painful to E.U. producers — and rendered them desperate for markets elsewhere. Throw in a stronger dollar due to Federal Reserve policy (thanks, Janet Yellen) — et voila! — U.S. cheese imports are rising.

They are doing so even as the Agriculture Department forecasts record U.S. production of 212.4 billion pounds of milk in 2016, and U.S exports are hampered by the aforementioned strong dollar.

So much for the widely held belief that foreign crises in places like Ukraine don’t affect Americans’ daily lives.

What is to be done? We could try to eat through the problem. You laugh, but the current level of per capita cheese consumption in the United States is 64 percent higher than it was in 1975, due partly to a richer society’s growing taste for richer foods. In the short run, consumption might go up a bit, since the glut is making cheese cheaper.

What's more, the U.S. government has a long-standing pro-cheese-eating policy, which grew out of the need to do something with the subsidized excess of milk products generated by federal pro-production dairy policy — which, in turn, has persisted for decades despite declining consumer interest in drinking milk.

Two decades ago, in fact, the Clinton administration's Agriculture Department helped form a promotional organization, Dairy Management Inc., funded by a congressionally authorized, federally collected dues requirement for dairy producers. Its $140 million annual budget has helped develop such fast-food items as Pizza Hut's cheese-topped crust and Taco Bell's double steak quesadillas, as well as cheesy pizzas for the federal school lunch program.

Is this little-known offshoot of the federal government up to the task of glut-cutting? No doubt the dairy industry would benefit if Dairy Management had some new cheese-based menu items up its sleeve. (A spokeswoman would neither confirm nor deny that, citing “proprietary concerns.”) Whether ever-increasing ingestion of a food rich in saturated fats should be a federal priority, given the obesity epidemic, is another question.

To be sure, some recent research shows dairy fat may not contribute to diabetes and may help some people fight obesity — findings repeatedly, and cheerfully, emphasized to me by that Dairy Management spokeswoman. Yet dietary guidelines from the Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture — the latter being the outfit that supervises Dairy Management — recommend limiting intake of saturated dairy fat.

USDA forecasters are also skeptical about the long-term growth potential of U.S. cheese consumption, in part, they say, due to the growth of nonwhite demographic groups that tend to eat less of it than whites do.

Alas, even with a government-backed organization urging us to consume more, Americans will probably never top the world champion cheese-eaters, who are, of course, the French, with annual per capita consumption of 57 pounds.

And so experts in cheese economics told me we’ll probably have to wait for a stockpile-clearing market correction. If and when that happens, it could mean trouble for some U.S. milk producers.

In theory, dairy farms are protected by a subsidized insurance program in the 2014 Farm Bill. In practice, don't be surprised to see dairy lobbyists run to Congress for new aid if the shakeout gets bad enough.

Broadly speaking, special pleading is how we wound up in our current cheese predicament to begin with. Governments across the world — even including a statelet like San Marino, which, though surrounded by Italy, is not a member of the E.U. and which has just signed an embargo-skirting deal to supply Russia with Parmesan — manipulate dairy markets in response to often contradictory political pressures.

If this column has a point at all, it might be this: In the long run, everyone — consumers, producers, middlemen, grocers — would probably be better off if governments just left the dairy market to its own devices. And a lot of other markets, too.

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