Domino’s Pizza and the USDA: The Bailout You Didn’t Hear About

Chalk up another victory for Stephen Colbert’s gut. Back in January, the touter of all things truthy declared Domino’s Pizza his “Alpha Dog of The Week” for a “game-changing ad campaign” to promote its new pizza recipe. Consumers had complained that the old formula tasted like ketchup-covered cardboard, a factor that presumably contributed to the company’s sagging sales.

So, Domino’s did two things: it reformulated its pizzas to contain nearly twice as much cheese; and launched an ad campaign which took the bold step of acknowledging just how awful its old pizzas were, while gushing about the “cheese, cheese, CHEESE!!!” that distinguishes the new recipe from the old one.

With the logos of Goldman Sachs, Citibank, Fannie Mae, Bank of America, and AIG on display behind him, Colbert applauded Domino’s “for joining the great American corporate tradition of screwing your customers and then having the balls to ask them to come back for more.”

Turns out that Domino’s had something else in common with these ethically challenged entities, aside from the dubious products they dumped on unwitting dupes.

As Sunday’s New York Times revealed, Domino’s effort to rebrand itself and thereby revive its flagging fortunes was partly financed by a government handout, or, if you prefer, corporate welfare. According to the Times’ Michael Moss, Domino’s $12 million marketing campaign was created and financed by a USDA-funded organization called Dairy Management.

The free market had spoken, and its collective voice said “Yuck!” But instead of standing by and letting Domino’s slide deeper into an apparently well-deserved decline, the government chose to intervene with an infusion of cash and a profusion of cheese.

And Dairy Management’s efforts to get more milk fat on the menus at Domino’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, and Pizza Hut have been a huge success, boosting cheese sales by “nearly 30 million pounds,” as Moss reports.

This is a great thing, if you are a dairy farmer saddled with surplus whole milk. For the rest of us, though, it raises some disturbing questions:

(1) Do we really need to eat more cheese, given that cheese consumption in the U.S. has already nearly tripled since 1970? Cheese is now the single greatest source of saturated fat in our diet. Is there no other use for all this excess milk fat? Given its artery-clogging capabilities, could it be used to fill the fractures in our ancient, decaying water mains, or the cracks in our highways?

Seriously. There’s a guy in Vermont named Andrew Meyer who’s figured out how to make an awesome, super durable, non-toxic floor and furniture varnish from another by-product of the cheese industry, whey. Why not use the USDA’s resources to encourage this kind of innovation, instead of ladling more cheese onto every one-handed fast food item so that we can shovel even more saturated fat down our gullets like geese at a foie gras farm?

(2) Doesn’t this totally conflict with the USDA’s anti-obesity campaign? A spokesperson for the USDA gave Moss the department’s boilerplate spiel: “When eaten in moderation and with attention to portion size, cheese can fit into a low-fat, healthy diet.”

Yes, but how do the gooey, greasy, lactose-laden monstrosities that Dairy Management has helped to create fit into that mythical moderate diet? As Marion Nestle notes in my Q & A with her on this topic, “Who eats one-quarter of a pizza?”

And, about those portion sizes? Jonathan Bloom points out in his timely, terrific new book, American Wasteland (citing research from Nestle herself and her colleague Lisa Young) that portion sizes climbed steadily in the 1970′s, increased sharply in the ’80s and continued to rise in the ’90s:

In recent years, seemingly everything in the food industry, from portions to plates, has swelled, except for our common sense.

Bloom writes that “we grow about twice as much food as we need,” thanks to agricultural policies that encourage overproduction. And all that waste has to go someplace, whether it’s to the landfill, the compost heap (all too rarely), or our stomachs.

In his salute to Domino’s, Colbert didn’t fault the company for its unapologetic admission that it had been serving its customers a sub-standard product:

After all, we’re the human garbage cans who bought these trash discs by the millions. Domino’s is simply advertising that they weren’t fit to wipe your ass with.

The new formula is both a dietary disaster and a marketing triumph. But the Domino’s campaign is only a small part of the story; Moss’s piece also delves into the troubling history of Dairy Management’s attempts to manipulate consumers with unsubstantiated claims touting the alleged weight-loss benefits of increased dairy consumption.

Oddly enough, the USDA’s top officials declined to speak with Moss, passing up the chance to trumpet Dairy Management’s evident success.

Don’t they want to disprove the naysayers who claim the government can’t create–or preserve–jobs? Aside from aiding the dairy industry, this partly tax payer-funded pro-lacto largesse has a few other winners. Think of all the pizza deliverers, the cardboard box manufacturers, and the producers of bovine growth hormone who might have been laid off had Domino’s been left to its own devices and lousy slices. It’s great for cholesterol-lowering drug sales, too.

Who loses? The ‘little people’. Although, apparently, we’re growing bigger everyday, with the help of a heap o’ cheese.

18 thoughts on “Domino’s Pizza and the USDA: The Bailout You Didn’t Hear About

  1. Phil from Domino’s Pizza here. Wanted to clear up one thing: 100% of these dollars come from America’s Dairy Farmers and our partnership with Dairy Management, Inc. — not the U.S. government or taxpayer money. This is U.S. Dairy Farmers using their money and resources to partner with us in promoting cheese…something we have in common through this partnership we are very proud of!

  2. very interesting. all i know is that i no longer have money for dominos, burger king etc etc. and i dont think many others do either, with or failing economy and all. maybe they should have just given everyone a “cheese allowance” so we could buy our own cheese, better choices would be made im sure. other wise i just see this cheesy campaign as another “waste” product emerging from the depths of Government.
    some things are so simple that they are simply confused by money!

  3. Pingback: The Times exposes the craziness of the junk-food industry/USDA alliance « Political News Online

  4. Love Dominos! They have a $4.99 anytime price for one pizza. I usually get pepperoni but sometimes Sausage. Delicious. On a good day I can eat the whole damned thing. But I digress. What is it exactly you think is bad about dairy and cheese?

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  6. The whole rebranding campaign was because people thought Dominoes pizzas were not cheesy enough. If people want more cheese and get fat it is there choice. Companies will sell what people want.

  7. We recently had an emergency and turned to Dominos as a meal of last resort. It’s much saltier before, and they’ve salted the crust.

    Other than that there wasn’t much difference.

    Back to our boycott.

  8. “There’s a guy in Vermont named Andrew Meyer who’s figured out how to make an awesome, super durable, non-toxic floor and furniture varnish from another by-product of the cheese industry, whey. Why not use the USDA’s resources to encourage this kind of innovation…”

    Oh, agreed! Thanks for pointing this out, his story is a good one.

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  10. I still don’t get the slam on cheese. AT says “If people want more cheese and get fat it is there choice.” But wouldn’t that be true regardless of which food you put into that sentence? Do you really believe chees makes you fat? The food police believe it is junkfood and the really kooky food nuts are convinced it is HFCS. There is a whole anti-carb movement out there that think it is carbohydrates and they even have splinter-kooks who think it is ONLY refined “white” carbs that are bad. But you have cleared it all up; it is cheese!!

    Speaking of food nuts; have you heard the latest crazy idea? Not only do the kooks want to ban sodas from school they want to ban juice as well. The only thing they want the kids to drink is water! That oughta work…

  11. Yeah, like Sunny says, What’s wrong with dairy products anyway? Jeez, man, Genghis Khan, with his vast army, conquered about half the world, living on mare’s milk. Maybe you really want to talk about over-consumption by sedentary people.

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  13. Pingback: Civil Eats » Blog Archive » Big Cheese vs. Real Cheese

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  15. Domino’s Pizza must be growing weary of trying to correct the misinformation upon which this entire “scandal” was based. The money in question is not from the USDA or any other branch or office of the government, federal or otherwise. It is from dairy producers. The New York Times article was wrong, as was The Colbert Report’s joke. Regardless of the perspective that informs our reporting we owe it to ourselves and our readers to understand the subject we’re reporting on. For the record I am liberal. It just so happens I grew up in a rural, farming area and went to j school with a few ag journalists.