Big Cheese: The Deceptive Politics of Industry Regulation

Outgoing USDA head takes Big Dairy job

Americans drink about 296 cups per capita of milk each year. This dietary choice has a big impact on the planet. (Photo: Coleur.)

Right now, the spotlight is on the cronies and climate deniers lining up to lead government agencies in the new administration. But, in the shadows, outgoing cabinet members like Tom Vilsack are headed to industry positions. Yesterday it was confirmed that Vilsack, who just left his post as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is taking a cushy gig with the dairy industry: He’ll be the CEO of the Dairy Export Council starting in February.

This move — from industry regulator to industry leader — is a glaring example of revolving-door politics and the unhealthy intimacy of federal regulators with big industry that existed even before Trump came to town. And it has led to weak regulation of one of the most ecologically destructive industries on the planet.

Vilsack’s new position within the industry he recently regulated may not surprise cynical observers. We’re used to Big Ag getting coddled by the government with taxpayer dollars. In his eight-year position as Secretary of Agriculture, Vilsack oversaw the distribution of federal funds through the check-off program as well as a major federal bailout of the dairy industry.

And the Dairy Export Council is funded largely by the USDA. It’s an organization made up of a web of corporate ties to food companies — from Pepsi and Starbucks to Land O’Lakes and the Dairy Farmers of America. These companies benefit directly from the cozy positioning with the government.

When federal regulators slide into lobbying positions with Big Ag it raises serious questions about conflicts of interest and whether regulatory decisions were made for the sake of industry at the expense of protecting Americans, our food system and our planet.

Dairy cattle are responsible for 19 percent of the global water footprint of animal agriculture. American consumption of milk alone produces 95 billion lb. CO2e emissions per year — the equivalent of 9.2 million cars. (Photo: Ryan McGuire.)

The industry has gone too long without bearing the cost or consequences of its environmental footprint. Dairy production’s impact, for example, includes destroying wild places with pesticides and animal waste while guzzling trillions of gallons of water. Milk production alone creates more greenhouse gas pollution than nine million cars, while using tens of thousands of square miles of land. That doesn’t include the environmental toll of other dairy products — from cheese to yogurt. This destruction is a major threat to biodiversity and wildlife.

Yet, during Vilsack’s tenure, the industry remained largely unregulated and received millions of dollars in federal handouts. Last fall, for example, the USDA spent $20 million to purchase 11 million pounds of surplus cheese — using taxpayer dollars to buy cheese nobody wanted and propping up unsustainable production in the process.

It was also the USDA that refused to include sustainability concerns in the most recent dietary guidelines, cowering to objections from the meat and dairy industries despite widespread public and expert support. Not only did the agency ignore the recommendations of its own scientific advisory panel, but, by excluding sustainability, the resulting dietary guidelines now lag behind nations around the world that have recognized the importance of promoting health for people and for the planet.

Would these same decisions have been made by a Secretary of Agriculture less cozy with the industry and headed for a different field after his tenure? After eight years, Vilsack is bringing insider knowledge of agency workings to an already-powerful lobbying group, which gives it a leg up in the fights ahead. And there will be many fights ahead — dairy is already attempting to control use of the term “milk,” paying out a settlement for price-gouging in 16 states and facing decreased demand and a stockpile of cheese no one wants.

By going soft on the meat and dairy industries, the federal government is spending taxpayer money to destroy the planet. Our taxes should promote sustainable agriculture and protect us from industry practices that pose a threat to people, wildlife and the environment. The swing of the revolving door between the government and the industry it is charged with regulating makes it virtually impossible to put people and the planet first.

Jennifer Molidor is the senior food campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity.