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Published: Sunday, 11/14/2010

Mixed messages

A GOVERNMENT agency at the center of a federal anti-obesity campaign ought not have a Big Cheese working against it. That's the dilemma at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is using public money to promote cheese consumption.

The Agriculture Department is committed to discouraging overconsumption of foods high in calories and saturated fat, which have been linked to heart disease. But it's also in the business of getting more of those foods, notably cheese, back into Americans' diets.

The New York Times reports that USDA, in a bizarre dichotomy of missions, operates a nonprofit corporation dedicated to increasing daily consumption of dairy products loaded with fat. Dairy Management Inc. vigorously promotes whole milk, milk fat, and cheese.

The latter has become the largest source of saturated fat. An ounce of many cheeses has as much saturated fat as a glass of whole milk. Thanks in large measure to Dairy Management's actitivities, Americans now eat an average of 33 pounds of cheese a year, nearly triple the 1970 rate. The dairy enterprise has even undercut USDA's own suggestion that people eat only low-fat or fat-free cheese.

Dairy Management's annual budget is financed mostly by a government-mandated fee on the dairy industry. But USDA appoints some of its board members, approves its marketing campaigns and major contracts, kicks in several million dollars a year in support, and periodically reports to Congress on its progress.

A central government goal is to combat rising obesity in the U.S. population by encouraging healthy diets and sound nutritional habits. Dairy Management defines its calling as "offering the products consumers want, where and when they want them."

Conflicting messages at cross-purposes shouldn't continue under one roof. USDA's Big Cheese has got to go.

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