Cheese and Dough: The Dairy Industry’s Successful Campaign to Reform The American Diet during the Obama Administration

In a Tortoiseshell

This excerpt concludes my junior paper, which investigates the extensive influence of corporate dairy interests on the American diet and food systems. Focused on the power dynamics between “Big Dairy” and the government, it unveils a pervasive conflict of interest in shaping dietary guidelines and regulatory bodies. The exploration of this intricate influence led us to the presented excerpt, which also introduces potential solutions, including bipartisan legislative efforts and the potential separation of dietary guidelines from USDA influence.

Excerpt / Lina Singh

The power wielded by corporate dairy interests not only molds the dietary habits of susceptible consumers but also extends its reach into broader socio-political spheres. The stark financial disproportion is exemplified by the staggering $202 million accumulated through dairy checkoff dollars in 2011, overshadowing government spending on healthier dietary alternatives such as fruits or vegetables. This contrast underscores a significant misalignment between agricultural and nutritional policies that ought to be intertwined.

This dissonance prompts deeper investigation into the connections linking big dairy and the government, revealing a political landscape where corporate interests permeate public policy, exerting profound impacts on the nation’s food systems and regulations. The 2012 Dairy Report to Congress outlines the pathway for dairy industry leaders to attain such authoritative positions: “The Secretary selects dairy producer members from nominations submitted by producer organizations, general farm organizations representing dairy producers, Qualified Programs, or other interested parties.” The Dairy Board, composed of 36 dairy producers and 2 dairy importers, administers the checkoff program and notably approved contracts with major fast-food chains like Domino’s, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell in 2012. This process enables a revolving door that allows industry insiders to access pivotal roles within regulatory bodies. It’s no surprise, then, that dairy industry representation on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has also consistently risen over time: “Three out of eleven members on the 1995 Committee had past or present industry ties; seven out of eleven members on the 2000 Committee; eleven out of thirteen members on the 2005 Committee; and nine out of thirteen members on the 2010 Committee.”  A clear conflict of interest becomes evident, as the leaders crafting The Pyramid, or MyPlate, are the very same ones invested in the lucrative sales of specific food products such as dairy, even if it involves collaborations with the nation’s most prominent fast-food brands.

Disturbing revelations of financial irregularities and oversight have cast a shadow over Big Dairy and the government’s transparency, prompting criticism in recent years. In 2017, a Politico article disclosed that the USDA had failed to submit a required financial report to Congress regarding a $400 million dairy research and promotional program — “one of the largest pots of cash among federal checkoff programs for at least four consecutive years.”  This ignited backlash from farmers and advocacy organizations, marking a striking departure from the program’s prior transparency when, before 2012, dairy checkoff reports were routinely submitted to Capitol Hill. The period between 2012 and 2017, following the successful Domino’s campaign and the overhaul of national dietary guidelines, remained relatively subdued in the public eye until investigative reporting revealed questionable ethical and financial management practices among industry executives and government leaders.

In 2017, a year that witnessed the closure of 1,600 dairy farms nationwide, IRS records indicate that 10 executives within Diary Management Inc. received over $8 million in compensation, averaging upwards of $800,000 per person. Thomas Gallagher, the nonprofit’s CEO, received over $1 million three times between 2013 and 2017, which covered tax indemnification, charter travel, and health club benefits. This stark disparity in earnings parallels the revolving door in food policy, exemplified by former USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s swift transition to lead the U.S. Dairy Export Council post his tenure, while also serving as DMI’s executive vice president.  Meanwhile, DMI allocated nearly $55 million to Daniel J. Edelman Inc., the world’s largest independent public relations firm, for “agency services,” attempting to counter negative publicity by promoting positive narratives about supporting dairy farmers. Thus, while DMI attempts to conceal its vulnerabilities from small dairy farmers and consumers, the checkoff program perpetuates a political system that continues to enrich the fortunes of only a handful of dairy executives.

Amidst this, members of the Agriculture Committee in both the House and the Senate have been susceptible to millions in dairy business donations, effectively turning those intended to represent the citizenry into agents of powerful agricultural interests instead. Most recently as of December 2023, the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act overwhelmingly passed the House, restoring whole milk and 2% milk as options in school cafeterias after they were banned under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010.  The new bill comes at a time when alternative dairy options such as oat, soy, and almond milk have gained popularity among 38% of American adults. This underscores a concerning trend: while consumer preferences shift toward dairy alternatives, dairy stakeholders have found a way to clamp down on one of their most captive customers — the American youth. Furthermore, politicians have only reinforced the desires of this industry. Illinois Congresswoman Mary Miller referred to the previous elimination of whole milk from schools as “radical Obama administration policies led by Michelle Obama,” alluding to the former first lady’s efforts to combat childhood obesity.  It’s clear that from the Domino’s campaign over a decade ago to the present day, the dairy industry’s sway over Capitol Hill has only intensified, showcasing a recurring cycle between public criticism, defensive industry reaction, and government institutionalization.

Former Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue’s 2019 statement, “get big or get out,” captures the government’s indifferent stance toward both the struggles of dairy farmers who have historically built America’s dairy industry, as well as Americans’ waistlines. This longstanding attitude has fostered an increasingly concentrated food system, benefiting a handful of corporations while overshadowing vulnerable, powerless farmers and consumers. Since the New Deal era, there has been a notable deviation from the checkoff program’s intended function—from providing immediate relief to being leveraged for the long-term prosperity and profit gains of specific industries by influencing the American diet.

The scholarly debate between journalists Michael Moss and James McWilliams over the checkoff program encapsulates a larger discourse surrounding the government’s involvement in enhancing the profitability of private enterprises. Upon careful examination, Moss convincingly exposes systemic flaws and the unjust dominance of dairy’s largest actors in shaping food regulations that run counter to the nation’s best interests. As the trust of marginalized communities in Washington’s leadership continues to erode, it becomes increasingly critical to address this issue.

However, within this complex situation lies a glimpse of hope. Senators from opposing sides of the political aisle, Cory Booker (D) and Mike Lee (R) introduced the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act in February 2023 aimed at enhancing the transparency of commodity research and promotion boards. Specifically, the OFF Act would prohibit any board from entering into “any contract or agreement to carry out checkoff program activities with a party that engages in activities for the purpose of influencing any government policy or action that relates to agriculture.”  Co-sponsored by Senators Rand Paul (R), Elizabeth Warren (D), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D), this bipartisan support underscores the recognized necessity for checkoff reform.  Backed by numerous farm groups, including the National Dairy Producers Organization, the Northeast Organic Dairy Farmers Alliance, the Revolving Door Project, and the Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment, the OFF Act holds potential. Though in its nascent stages, concerted grassroots support and constituent pressure on representatives to propel this bill to law could potentially rescue the agricultural sector from peril.

To enhance the nation’s health, medical experts propose separating dietary guidelines from the USDA’s purview, advocating for the transfer of this responsibility to a dedicated health agency. For example, the New England Journal of Medicine suggests assigning guideline development to bodies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the National Academy of Science Institute of Medicine (IOM). Similar to practices in nations like Finland and Greece, the United States could entrust the publication of dietary advice to a government body solely focused on this task, insulated from corporate influence. This measure alone holds the promise of saving lives and delivering the unbiased nutritional guidance that Americans urgently need and deserve.

The Domino’s cheese campaign in partnership with Dairy Management Inc. serves as a stark reminder of the blurred lines between profit-driven initiatives and governmental regulations. The incestuous relationship between agribusiness interests and regulators perpetuates a system that disproportionately benefits large-scale entities while marginalizing small farmers and consumers. By disentangling the web of industry influence from agricultural policymaking, we can pave the way toward safeguarding not only American dietary choices but the integrity of the nation’s democratic values. 

Author Commentary / Lina Singh

My writing process involved careful planning and continuous refinement, beginning with immersing myself in primary and secondary sources to discover a compelling narrative. Almost like an investigative reporter, I delved deeper into my chosen topic, familiarizing myself with the ongoing scholarly conversation. Crafting my argument involved building upon existing publications, supporting certain claims, and challenging others.

Conceptualizing my argument as the culmination of a chronological storyline spread across three parts helped me structure my paper. Each section served as a mini-paper seamlessly leading into the next. To organize my argument, I maintained a chronological document containing evidence, quotes, data, and historical events that naturally formed the basis for my three sections. Alongside each piece of evidence, I recorded initial thoughts on its significance and its potential role in supporting my paper’s claims. This approach not only facilitated the organization of evidence but also laid the groundwork for my analysis during the writing process. While I maintained this roadmap for my paper, I approached it with flexibility and openness to change. Adapting my initial outline throughout the writing process is what allowed for the emergence of new ideas and contributed to the development of a richer analysis.

Another lesson learned from this paper is the value of in-depth research into an ultra-specific event, person, or story. By zooming out from the details of the Domino’s cheese campaign, for instance, this paper shed light on broader implications, inspiring critical reflection and advocating for collective efforts to disentangle industry influence from dietary regulations. Entering this research, I had a broad understanding of the topic but emerged with a deeper knowledge and a refined ability to trace the complexities of this problem. The key to the success of this paper lies in my genuine interest and investment in the subject matter. So, my ultimate advice for tackling extensive research like a junior paper, is to choose a topic that excites you and sustains your interest over an extended period.

Editor Commentary / Nadja Markov

The writing style as well as the expectations of the Junior Paper differ from the ones posed by the Writing Seminars or Freshman Seminars. The writer has had two years of exposure to academic writing at the university level, as well as their department – and this can be reflected in the improvements in their approach to researching and writing a paper. Lina’s paper shows a strong understanding of the source material and an original thesis rooted in evidence. Her scholarly motive leads the paper forward, even in the conclusion.

Even the first paragraphs of the conclusion, we can see Lina restating her motive through using sentence structures such as “This dissonance prompts deeper investigation into the connections linking big dairy and the government…” In this way, she ensures that the reader once again understands her point of view as a researcher, and sees the connections that she is making in her paper. This motivating sentence is then followed by a discussion of her sources, and a deep-dive into some of the statistics that she gathered for the purpose of this paper. This is used in order to orient the reader to the issue at hand. As a reader, I felt as though I was investigating this dairy industry with Lina. This tactic is especially useful when dealing with large datasets and a plethora of sources, which most Junior Papers are. In Lina’s case, she is analyzing her sources through the lens of public policy, but this skill is interdisciplinary.

Next, Lina adds yet another layer to her motive, now restating the scholarly point of view by mentioning the “scholarly debate going on between journalists Michael Moss and James McWilliams”. This helps the reader understand the scholarly significance of her work, as well as the differing points of view that they can take on the issue at hand. This approach also ensures that she is not cherry-picking her data in order to fit one narrative, but is rather looking at the bigger picture, and analyzing her issue through an objective lens.

Finally, the writer turns to expanding the scope of her essay right at the end of the conclusion by introducing a “glimpse of hope” into the discussion. She mentions different approaches that have been taken to mitigate the issue imposed by the dairy industry, and, perhaps most importantly, takes a moment to restate what her essay brings to the scholarly conversation.

The author

Lina Singh

Lina Singh, ‘25, is a junior from Westport, Connecticut. She is pursuing a concentration in the School of Public and International Affairs with a certificate in Cognitive Science. Her academic track and an internship with the U.S. Department of Agriculture have propelled her exploration of food-related issues, including the impact of American animal agriculture subsidies on climate change, domestic nutrition policy, and international food aid. On campus, she is an Orange Key Tour Guide and serves as a barista at the Coffee Club.

Nadja Markov ‘26 is a Computer Science major from Zrenjanin, Serbia. Apart from being a Writing Center Fellow, she’s also a Chapel Choir singer, RCA for the Freshman Scholars Institute, and involved with Outdoor Action. When she’s not working with fellow students, she enjoys playing bass guitar, crocheting, and taking pictures of squirrels.