With the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio fast approaching, it is interesting to hear all of the news stories about the state of this Brazilian seaside city and its ability (or possible inability) to properly house such a large sporting event. From ethical concerns pertaining to personal safety in the city to health concerns to all the hubbub surrounding whether or not Russian Olympians will be allowed to participate due to a doping scandal, it really puts a dent on the Olympics this year, which should really be a time for people of the world to come together to participate, and more likely, if your like me, just observe some of the top athletic competitors around the world together in one central location.
For Plant-Smart Living, we have look at a number of vegan Olympians from the past, and I can’t help but avoid looking at this upcoming Olympic sporting event without thinking about the possibility of someone or some organization promoting a plant-based message. After all, it makes a lot of sense to me quite simply because of how it has positively impacted my own life; and based on the reactions from vegan performers, can be considered a perfect source of fuel.
This perspective is let down, then, when I see that Team USA is sponsored by Milk Life as a result of a five-year deal put to paper with the United States Olympic Committee which will cover the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Pyeongchang in 2018, and Tokyo in 2020.
Corporate sponsorship of the Olympics is not a new thing, and I certainly do not have any problems with this per say. After all, the Olympics are extremely expensive to put on for a city, so it only makes sense to try and make some money in the process.
A major reason why it is a coveted position to hold the Olympic Games is because of the recognition and notoriety that comes from having them in a given city, and the boost to the economy it can be expected to bring. Just having so many tourists from around the world engaging with the city by way of purchasing bus and cab fairs, food at local restaurants, etc. can help support a city that may be struggling financially otherwise, as is the case in Rio de Janeiro.
Not to mention, the advertising and brand awareness being a corporate sponsor of the Olympic Games can have a huge impact on getting a company’s message heard.
The problem with a sponsorship by Milk Life, for me, is that their values do not jive with a whole foods, plant-based diet. It has long pervaded thought in the United States that “milk is good for you,” however recent research is beginning to show that this may not be the case. The negative impact of dairy on your body and on the environment as a result of the processes required to generate enough milk to actively support the many consumers in the US (and around the world) is difficult to ignore. Even more important is how producing milk on this level is unhealthy and considered by many animal rights activists to be an inhumane treatment of cattle. Not to mention, it is grotesque to think how by consuming milk, you are consuming the fluid of another living being as a source of food.
By putting pen to paper and signing a contract with Milk Life, the United States Olympic Committee has made a decision that impacts all US athletes whether they are vegan, vegetarian, or otherwise. Given the minority status of vegans in the United States, it probably is not an issue that matters to the majority of people; and moreover is probably not even showing up on anyone’s radar as a potential problem.
The psychological impact is simple: it implies all US Olympic athletes consume milk, and neglects to consider those who adopt a dairy free, vegan lifestyle.
But the core issue runs deeper than just perception by the audience and my personal feelings on the matter.
The larger problem is that through this brand awareness, Milk Life will likely see an international boost in recognition. Do not be surprised if when you tune into the Summer Olympics on the TV that you see a banner ad for Milk Life at some point in the mix of corporate sponsors, or if you happen to be someone going to the physical location, to see these ads and product placements in person.
The result of this recognition, though, is a continuation of the vicious cycle of dairy milk production, inhumane treatment of animals, and the spread of the ‘milk ideology’ that suggests “milk is good for you” without quality scientific research - at least, scientific research not backed by paid off lobbyists and pro-dairy organizations.
What is Milk Life?
One of the most complex things to understand in all of this is what exactly Milk Life provides, or put another way, what their purpose is in the sea of milk-based organizations. Their website leaves a lot to be desired, and on the surface is not exactly representative of an organization I would expect to have enough funding to be a sponsor of a major sporting event like the Olympics.
It would appear that at most, Milk Life exists to provide education regarding dairy milk products as a method of spreading the desire for milk consumption.
What really gets my investigative wheels turning?
The simple, small font note at the bottom of their web page for The Great American Milk Drive (a charity drive oriented towards combating child hunger with milk): “Brought to you by America’s Milk Companies & Farm Families.”
My initial impression was that Milk Life may just be a subsidiary of a larger corporate entity. This would be a very common thing to be seen from a large corporation with enough capital to sponsor an Olympic team.
The strange thing, though, is that when trying to search for information about “America’s Milk Companies & Farm Families” (and using search variations of these names such as just “America’s Milk Companies” and “Farm Families” separately), very little information actually comes up. In fact, one of the only hits in the search engine is simply for the Great American Milk Drive web page!
We will have more about the Great American Milk Drive in just a bit…
Something isn’t right here!
As it is difficult to identify who and what exactly comprise America’s Milk Companies & Farm Families, perhaps we are best off just taking it at face value. The organization name is fairly broad reaching and could encompass all companies and farmers in the USA. My thought is that this “organization” is really just a coalition of all of these milk and dairy organizations, companies, and individuals under one broad, defining phrase. Perhaps not “all” milk and dairy organizations in the country, but at least a significant sub-sect that has opted into the coalition in some manner.
The problem with this lack of information in an increasingly transparent world is that it allows too much anonymity within the organization, and does not enable the public to hold any one individual or company responsible for the contents of its message. Moreover, the notion that all milk companies and farmers can operate as a unified collective is frightening. I have already addressed in the past how meat industry lobbying has significantly skewed US Nutritional Guidelines, and I have no doubt that the dairy industry has the same sort of power.
I discuss several prime examples of lobbying from within the dairy industry a little further down.
America’s Milk Companies Brand Breakdown:
The Milk Life website is filled with fragmented information. Knowing that Milk Life is associated with this larger, ghost organization of America’s Milk Companies forces me to want to know who is a part of this shadow organization. On the Milk Life website is a list of “milk brands,” which I can only assume are associated with Milk Life (enough to be featured on their website) through the America’s Milk Companies coalition.
Some of these brand names range from local and state run milk companies to national and international milk brands you may even more quickly notice. Examples include:
- Prairie Farms
- Rock View
- Stewart’s Shops
- Turkey Hill
- Turner Dairy Foods
- Dutch Valley
There are over 100 milk producing farms and corporations that appear to have some level of involvement here. This is a significant level of power given that just a handful of these largest brands have a significant amount of money and power on their own to control public opinion, government legislation, and what you consume as a part of your daily diet. When put together, they form what begins to look like a conglomerate of power in the food industry.
But Wait, There’s More!
The Milk Processor Education Program (MilkPEP) is also associated with Milk Life. This is a hugely important piece of information that goes beyond the shadow coalition of America’s Milk Companies because there is actual legitimate and verifiable information publicly available about this organization. It would appear Milk Life is a promotional vessel of MilkPEP, which would make sense given MilkPEP's authority in this industry. This relationship is confirmed on the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) website.
In 2014, there were articles posted about how MilkPEP was moving away from their former slogan “Got Milk?” and looking for a different brand tactic to help sell people on consuming milk, as at the time American milk consumption was in a lull.
MilkPEP is "funded by the nation's milk processors, who are committed to increasing fluid milk consumption." This organization is led by a 15-member board with oversight from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Agriculture Marketing Service. This instant connection between the US government and MilkPEP is not surprising, but certainly does not help concerns of a possible exchange of money to the US government to actively promote milk consumption - in light of contradictory science.
Also of interest is a review of MilkPEP's 2015 Budget (PDF) which showcases some interesting, and some shocking, things. At first glance, the sheer revenue numbers noted as nearly 1$ Billion Dollars is incredible. It is hard to comprehend where all of this money comes from. Moreover, how in certain aspects of the budget, money is allocated specifically to promote milk consumption to Hispanics, a minority ethnic group in the USA, is jarring.
The reason why this is important and shocking is simple: Hispanics are a minority in the USA that are also statistically the poorest in the nation. It is well documented that the poorest among us are also the most likely to be unhealthy and not have access to healthier foods. Big business dairy milk enters the scene with an affordable solution that tastes good, but is not actually good for you. Then a group like MilkPEP not only offers the product, but specifically designates money ($1,500,000 dollars is not a small amount of money, either) to promote to this vulnerable, at risk group of people. It is a rigged system.
Money, Power and Popularity
America’s Milk Companies & Farm Families, MilkPEP, and through the unassuming educational vessel of Milk Life, has leveraged their combined finances, power (on local, state, national and international scales), and popularity of both brand and message (that milk is healthy and an essential part of your diet that provides 8 grams of protein per serving) to acquire a deal with the United States Olympic Committee to become a long-term sponsor of the US Olympic Team.
The real concern does not lie with the message, however much I (and you) may disagree with it. After all, I am glad to be in the United States where free speech is allowed by both individuals and organizations, and while I disagree fully with the notion that milk is healthy for you and believe this belief can only be arrived to as a result of caving in to popular opinion and bad science (potentially funded by dairy coalitions like America’s Milk Companies and "milk promoters" like MilkPEP), the truth is that this collected power, money, and popular support has the potential to be very damaging if it takes a turn towards impacting government regulations and spending.
Money and Power CAN Turn Into Government Lobbying!
I noted earlier in this article about how their is clear evidence of the meat industry lobbying the US government to support their product. Their is also documented evidence of this occurring within the dairy milk industry as well. After a section in the book Schools and Public Health: Past, Present, Future by Michael Gard, Carolyn Pluim discussing MilkPEP's promotional campaigns within the public school system dedicated to keeping milk, particularly flavored milk, in school cafeterias; a section is devoted to discussing other lobbying efforts by similar dairy organizations. An excerpt reads:
"Other industry trade groups affected by the proposed rules also intensified their congressional lobbying. For example, in 2011 the American Frozen Food Institute spent $543,000 (up from $334,000 in 2010), Schwann Food Co. spent $50,000, and ConAgra Foods Inc. spent $400,000. These groups also recruited legislators to lobby the USDA on their behalf. Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, issued a letter to the USDA arguing against the rules which, if implemented, would no longer permit pizza to qualify as a vegetable. Under the previous nutrition standards, the tomato sauce component of pizza afforded it vegetable status. Perhaps not surprisingly, Minnesota is home to the Schwann Food Co., a business with nearly $3 billion in annual sales, which controls more than 70 percent of the school frozen pizza market. Klobuchar's industry connections were further highlighted when a Minnesota Public Radio report revealed that her letter to the USDA contained a passage identical to Schwann Food Co.'s letter to the USDA. Both letters contained the sentence: 'By changing the crediting, many tomato-based sauces and salsa-type applications would no longer be factored into the weekly requirements for vegetables." More on lobbying from the dairy/milk industry is available in the book as well, but in conclusion the author sums the section up simply:
Of course, lobbying is a continued process that is most often hidden from public view. Because if the general public was aware of lobbying efforts, by the dairy and milk industry (or any industry in fact), there would certainly be more outcry. Many of us may be aware that lobbying goes on, but never really encounter specific lobbying issues that would cause us to be concerned.
But What About the Great American Milk Drive?
The Great American Milk Drive is a charity push organized by Feeding America, the United States largest domestic hunger-relief organization, and Milk Life, the unassuming, non-transparent education and charity sales page arm of America’s Milk Companies.
The money generously donated by individuals around the country (both online and in select retail partners) is then used to fund the purchase of milk for the impoverished, hungry among us. It is certainly no bad thing to want to feed the hungry, but I believe there is more to this picture than meets the eye.
Without having access to financials for this charity drive, one can only assume that the money donated is reinvested into the companies appearing to be associated with America’s Milk Companies & Farm Families, as well as MilkPEP itself. These again include major corporations like Nestle and Kroger. Certainly I could believe that these companies do provide milk for this purpose, but we have to keep in mind that there is financial benefit when money from donations turns into company profits.
The Dairy Industry is a Perplexing Web of Lies
No one likes feeling like they are being lied too. Hearing on a TV commercial that Milk Life would be the corporate sponsor of the US Olympic Team was only slightly off-putting at first, but I had a bad feeling from the start. As I began to investigate Milk Life and the other organizations that surround it, I learned of associations with America’s Milk Companies & Farm Families, MilkPEP, and the larger dairy industry as a whole. The way these companies, organizations, and promotional arms influence US and international society is substantial, and not completely public, either.
Why is it so difficult to clearly identify even some of the companies associated with America’s Milk Companies & Farm Families? The lack of transparency just makes the whole situation feel even shadier.
More importantly, Milk Life appears to operate with everyone’s best intentions in mind. They provide a landing page for charitable donations to feed hungry children and provide what most would view as valuable free educational resources on their website.
The problem only begins to arise when you start to dig below the surface and uncover evidence of lobbying, inaccurate science paid for by the milk industry itself, and this extensive network carefully designed and articulated to the public with the primary motivation of driving milk sales upwards and generating profits for a slowly dying and no longer needed industry of the past.