Politics of whole milk, part 2: Vilsack banned whole milk in schools, gets dairy checkoff’s top pay

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.)

Fuel Up and Play 60

USDA Photo from Feb. 4, 2011 where then Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke to young people at the Fuel Up to Play 60 (FUTP60) event held at the Sheraton Hotel in Dallas, Texas before the 2011 Super Bowl, the same day that the MOU was signed between NFL, USDA, Dairy Checkoff and GENYOUth to focus on ending childhood obesity with fat-free / low-fat foods and beverages and 60 minutes of daily exercise. And so, a decade later… here we are so much farther down this wrong road.

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.

At the 2011 Superbowl, Tom Vilsack represented USDA signing the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) outlining the joint commitment of the NFL, USDA and National Dairy Council (Dairy Checkoff) to launch GENYOUth to end childhood obesity with a focus on low-fat and fat-free diets and 60 minutes of exercise daily. Today, DMI IRS 990 forms show that Dairy Checkoff pays Tom Vilsack just shy of $1 million/year as DMI’s highest paid executive; Dairy Checkoff pays the world’s largest PR firm Edelman $15 to $17 million/year as the purpose-driven brain-trust behind the GENYOUth and Innovation Center ‘sustainability’ concepts; Dairy Checkoff pays the GENYOUth CEO over $200,000/year to run the foundation; Dairy Checkoff pays the core operations of GENYOUth to the tune of $1.5 million; Dairy Checkoff has USDA attorneys at every meeting and on every conference call to approve promotion projects and messages (government speech); and Dairy Checkoff pays the NFL $5 to $7 million annually for their part in this “promotion.” Meanwhile, NFL promotes its brand through flag-football sets to FUTP60-participating schools; USDA markets and enforces dietary guidelines with the financial assistance of dairy farmers through the checkoff; and other companies participating in GENYOUth, most notably PepsiCo, are able to market their own pet projects, products, brands and influence to kids while the dairy farmers are regulated to government speech. Dairy Checkoff touts the FUTP60 breakfast carts as serving milk with every breakfast, but only fat-free and 1% are promoted and permitted, and USDA’s own studies show that this fat-free and 1% low-fat school milk is among the most frequently discarded items. The entire deal ignores the fact that the dietary guidelines have exacerbated the obesity and diabetes trend, that children are not getting the valuable nutrients from the milk they are served if they don’t like the taste of fat-free and 1% and throw it away to buy something else. And the deal further ignores studies showing that body fatness was lower and Vit. D status higher in children drinking whole milk as compared with children drinking 1% low-fat milk. What will it take to see positive change when the very government figure who was influential in getting us here is now the dairy industry leader that the industry organizations revere and who is looked at by USDA, Congress and other policymakers as speaking for dairy? If he took whole milk out of the schools, and he now ‘speaks for dairy’ and is ‘believed’ to be so concerned about kids, who else matters in the discussion? Does the government care about the over 15,000 online and 5000 by mail signatures of dairy farmers, parents, grandparents, students, teachers, coaches, school boards, town boards, county commissioners, state lawmakers, health experts, nutrition experts, athletes, nurses, doctors, and generally comcerned citizens among these signatures asking for the choice of whole milk in schools

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Politics of whole milk: Dairies go bankrupt, Vilsack gets top pay

When it comes to ‘politics,’ DMI talks out of both sides of the mouth: Top paid executive Tom Vilsack shown here in June asking Senate Ag Committee for government ‘support’ to pay DMI’s ‘pilot farms’ to develop practices for ‘U.S. Dairy’ to reach Net Zero emissions. But ask if DMI can  support whole milk in schools and the response is: “Oh no, that is ‘political’ and we aren’t ‘allowed’ to be ‘political.'” Truth is, DMI’s current top-paid executive — Tom Vilsack — is the one who while serving as Ag Secretary, spearheaded the removal of whole milk from schools in the first place.

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Friday, Dec. 6, 2019

The former Ag Secretary who was 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 mandatory checkoff funds paid by dairy farmers who are going bankrupt. 

On Monday (Dec. 2), the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that their early look at DMI’s IRS 990 forms for fiscal 2018 show that Tom Vilsack became the highest paid DMI executive earning $999,921 in 2018, which was his first full year as an executive vice president of DMI, president and CEO of DMI’s U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC), and defacto leader of the Net Zero Project and sustainability and innovation platforms of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.

Let’s go back a decade. Think back to 2009. The bottom fell out of the dairy markets. It was arguably the worst of economic times in memory for dairy farmers as farm level milk prices fell to $10, and equity in the value of cow herds plummeted. 

As farmers were busy trying to save their farms, and the industry and lawmakers were busy outwardly debating National Milk’s version of “supply management” in the Farm Bill that year, dairy leaders and regulators holding overlapping former and current positions within USDA, DMI, NMPF, DFA and IDFA, began charting a future for dairy in terms of pursuing international dominance, developing “sustainability” frameworks, partnering for “innovation”, and focusing on the zone of investment for consolidating the milk production footprint with ultrafiltration technology as the way to move milk without the water.

It all fits together, like pieces of a puzzle — with no picture on the box to show outwardly what it will all look like when complete.

Back in 2010, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy was busy on “sustainability” and getting fairlife ‘the better milk’ up and going, with the DMI Innovation Center’s sustainability council leader being none other than Fair Oaks’ / fairlife’s Dr. Mike McCloskey. 

Then Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was busy too that year. In addition to restricting school milk to fat-free and 1% and promulgating rules that listed Whole Milk as “prohibited” on school grounds during school hours, Vilsack was signing Memorandums of Understanding (MOU’s) with National Dairy Council to create GENYOUth to promote that dogma, and with DMI to link the “sustainability” framework of Vilsack’s USDA to the “sustainability” framework of DMI’s fledgling Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.

Dairy farmers were coming out of 2008-09 devastation — starved for good news — and were encouraged by all this talk of innovation and sustainability and international markets because they thought it meant the industry was looking to sell more milk and dairy products in such a way as to raise prices paid to them for their milk. 

Who could question this high pursuit of innovation and sustainability and exports – right? That’s the trifecta, the holy grail.

2014’s high milk prices seemed to validate that all was going to be right with the dairy world. But most were not paying attention to the USDA / DMI alliance that was formed and growing — and what it might mean for the future.

Quietly – without much fanfare or protest – USDA began tightening milk restrictions in the school lunch program during this time. In fact, so quiet was this shift that many parents to this day do not realize their kids are getting watered-down milk, cheese, imitation butter, and half-beef-half-soy patties at school.

As the 2010 Dietary Guidelines were implemented, a democrat-controlled Congress passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act – under the avid lobbying efforts of President Obama’s USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack for the legislation that would tighten school lunch screws even more.

The dairy checkoff had already been called “government speech” in its 2005 Supreme Court defense, so with USDA’s blessing and encouragement – under Vilsack – the low-fat and fat-free dogma became entrenched and proliferated through the GENYOUth alliance. 

And it set the stage for a new era in dairy that today’s leaders speak of. We are hearing it now. A recent DFA newsletter tells members “milk must evolve to remain relevant.” DFA / NMPF chairman Randy Mooney stated last month that the industry needs to consolidate plants to make new products. Northeast DFA leaders heard from a food science writer and DMI contractor about how dairy proteins will complete plant-based diets during their recent meeting in Syracuse. Dairy dilution is all around us. And the industry points to Dean Foods’ bankruptcy as proof that Real Whole Milk isn’t good enough, isn’t sustainable. (Well, of course not, no one is truly marketing it and the government thanks to Vilsack is prohibiting kids from having it. This is not rocket science folks.)

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 endorsing presidential candidates and writing their rural platforms, testifying in so many other discussions, including climate change and sustainability and seeking Senate approval of funds for Net Zero pilot farms.

Yes, folks, the dairy industry had and has Tom Vilsack — or vice versa.

See part two.

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