By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Dec. 13, 2019
The former Ag Secretary instrumental in removing whole milk from schools is now the highest-paid executive at Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) whose virtual $1 million/year in 2018 came from dairy farmers who are going bankrupt.
Farmshine Editor’s Note: Sherry Bunting has written a lengthy, well researched commentary on how the dairy economy and dairy product promotion and marketing evolved over the past decade with Tom Vilsack at the helm. Vilsack served as USDA Secretary in the Obama Administration and is the current chief of the U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC), an affiliate of Dairy Management, Inc. Wherever he has been since 2009, Vilsack is unquestionably one of America’s most powerful influencers when it comes to dairying. And the outcome has seldom been favorable to the nation’s milk producers. Part I of this reportappeared in the December 6th edition of Farmshine, page 20. Part II follows
In my journalistic pursuits of the past decade, two statements by checkoff-paid executives and dairy checkoff board members now reverberate in my mind:
1) On milk as a beverage: “Fluid milk is dead, we have to stop beating that horse and innovate for these new beverage markets.” – 2016 during questions after a presentation by a USDEC checkoff-paid employee at a meeting of dairy policy analysts and economists.
2) On dietary guidelines and school milk: “They are a different breed. We have our own plan. We have a friend inside the White House. We are already working with someone on this. And we finally have a drink that consumers want (fairlife).” — 2015 phone call to me from a DMI board member who also served on DFA’s board, challenging an article I had written that year. In the course of our conversation, he made this comment in response to my question to him asking why the dairy industry was being silent on the 2015 Dietary Guidelines that year, and why dairy was not joining forces with beef to push the solid science on animal fat as revealed in Nina Teicholz’s book Big Fat Surprise. I had also asked him why they weren’t supporting the beef industry’s opposition to the “sustainability” driven parts of the 2015 dietary guidelines.
In his Ag Secretary role in 2010, Vilsack was instrumental in the creation of GENYOUth through the MOU signed between USDA, National Dairy Council (Dairy Checkoff) and the NFL. (In fact, as Ag Secretary, Vilsack appointed some of the current Dairy Board members who then hired him at the end of the Obama administration as a DMI executive vice president and CEO of USDEC.)
Today, GENYOUth is the bus on which more companies each year are hitching a ride into the schools — paid for primarily by dairy farmers in effect funding their own demise. Meanwhile, dairy farmers are the only ones not free to fully promote their best product, being relegated and regulated to government speech on fat-free / low-fat.
When Vilsack was presented the Vanguard Award during the 2017 GENYOUth Gala aboard the U.S.S. Intrepid in New York City Harbor, former President Bill Clinton spoke his accolades, and congratulated him on being the one to overcome the hurdle of getting beverage calories included in the school meal calculations. It is the very thing the current Senate Bill seeking to allow whole milk in schools would reverse.
Bill Clinton, a vegan, went on in his 2017 GENYOUth Gala speech to emphasize how beverages were a “huge” problem in the obesity epidemic, that we don’t think about how many calories kids consume in a drink, and that regulating school beverages was a big step forward on that front.
He was talking about whole milk. Whole milk is named, specifically, on the list of beverages prohibited from sale on school grounds during school hours.
And yet plenty of PepsiCo beverages — made specially to meet the 60-calorie threshold with a combination of high fructose corn syrup and sucralose, including Gatorade and Mountain Dew Kickstart — are welcomed on those school lunch “smart snacks” acceptable beverage lists.
Vilsack started with DMI six days after the Obama Administration ended in January 2017. But 2018 was his first full year as a DMI executive, and he has been busy earning his highest-paid status.
In May, Vilsack wrote about how the U.S. dairy industry would meet its new goals to export 20% of production, and he praised the record level of exports in 2018 as “a banner year for exporters.” (We all know 2018 was anything BUT banner for dairy farmers paying his salary. In fact, export volumes were higher in 2018 than in 2017 and 2019 while prices paid to farmers were lower in 2018 than in 2017 and 2019.)
In June, Vilsack testified before Congress that the government should partner with the dairy industry to pay ‘pilot farms’ to develop and test the innovations “U.S. Dairy” will need in order to reach the Net Zero emissions goal he has been instrumental in setting. In fact, Senators referred to him as ‘the president of dairy innovation.’
The ultimate vehicle for those practices after they are tested on pilot farms will be the dairy checkoff-funded and NMPF-administrated FARM program initiated through the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.
At that “sustainability” hearing of the Senate Ag Committee in June, Vilsack earnestly stated that the Net Zero project – and government assistance for pilot farms to find the practices to achieve it — was essential for the U.S. dairy industry to have an edge in international markets.
In November, Vilsack endorsed former vice president Joe Biden for President of the United States and praised his candidacy “for including a path to addressing climate change while at the same time helping the rural economy and creating jobs by investing in green infrastructure, renewable fuels and low-carbon manufacturing,” according to an article about the Vilsack endorsement of Biden in the Nov. 23 edition of the Des Moines Register.
In fact, the Register article stated that Vilsack “helped write Biden’s plan for rural America.” But that’s not political involvement by a checkoff executive, is it?
It is interesting that when dairy checkoff board members are asked by the farmers paying the checkoff why they can’t stand up for whole milk in schools, the response they always get is: “That’s politics, and we can’t get into that.” Of course, the rules and regs of USDA overseeing checkoff are then cited forward and backward.
But, when it comes to Vilsack’s hands in the political pie – not to mention dairy farmers’ pockets – there are no rules and it’s all good. In fact, it’s encouraged because it’s part of the plan, the future of dairy, of food.
Vilsack is, after all, the dairy checkoff’s highest-paid executive, who is most culpable in his former position as Ag Secretary for putting the last nail in the fluid milk coffin. His policies on milk in schools and the fat-free / low-fat ‘government speech’ that now defines milk promotion, have at the very least contributed to – if not accelerated — the loss of fluid milk sales in the past decade of steepest decline.
In 2015, when confronted with what investigations have revealed about the science on animal fat, especially milk fat – according to the new and previously buried research — Vilsack said the preponderance of the evidence still favored low-fat diets. And with that proclamation, he signed the 2015 Dietary Guidelines that accelerated taking dairy markets – and our nation’s children – down the wrong road.
Think about this. From 2010 to 2018, the era in which the alliance between Vilsack’s USDA and the dairy checkoff was initiated and bloomed and in which he is now the highest paid executive – DMI controlled $140 to $159 million annually in mandatory dairy farmer funds. In that pool of funds, 25% went to salaries and other costs associated with core operations and another 30% went to contractors for promotion in ways that could be considered ‘core operations.’
In 2018, as in previous years, the NFL received $5 million; Edelman, the world’s largest PR firm, received $16 million; Fairlife $8 million, Domino’s $9 million, a marketing firm for GENYOUth with ties to Edelman $4 million, McDonald’s $5 million, and Vilsack got his virtual million.
Yes, folks, hindsight is 20/20. And here we are on the eve of 2020 with former Ag Secretary Vilsack – who was paid a $999,421 salary in 2018 from mandatory dairy producer checkoff funds and is now the top-paid DMI executive — to thank for the removal of whole milk and whole dairy products from our schools. And no one cares to ask him to testify to Congress about why whole milk should be allowed in schools, but he is politically involved in so many other discussions.
The dairy industry had and has Tom Vilsack — or vice versa.