How the Dairy Industry and ‘The Onion’ Are Teaming Up To Defend Factory Farms | Civil Eats

How the Dairy Industry and ‘The Onion’ Are Teaming Up To Defend Factory Farms

The sponsored posts are aimed at making dairy industry critics look like uninformed hipsters.

ugly_cowsThe dairy industry is in crisis mode. Milk consumption has declined by almost a third over the past 40 years, and sales of fluid milk are at their lowest level in 30 years. Meanwhile, the market for non-dairy “milk” has grown by around 10 percent every year since 1999.

Consequently, the industry has tried all sorts of tactics over the past several years to salvage its market. It has branded dairy alternatives “spooky,” funky,” and “not natural”; it advertised milk as a PMS-curing elixir with advertisements that were eventually pulled after significant outcry about their sexist message; and it launched a recent campaign criticizing almond milk’s low protein content, while conveniently ignoring the fact that soy milk provides just as much protein as cow’s milk.

None of those strategies have proven effective, so for its latest stunt, Dairy Management Inc.—the industry group that manages the dairy checkoff, or money it collects from dairy farmers—has begun partnering with The Onion to capture the attention of Millennials.

Together, they’re producing a series of videos and “edgy content” titled “The Udder Truth” that aim to “address common consumer myths” and “set the record straight about the work dairy farmers do and the milk they produce.”

The first sponsored article ran in The Onion in late July with the title, Blogger Takes Few Moments Every Morning To Decide Whether To Feel Outraged, Incensed, Or Shocked By Day’s News. It reads:

Today, for example, I plan to rant about how we’re all morphing into poisonous zombies from the antibiotics administered to dairy cows by aliens—you know, deftly work in something alarmist about how the milk we drink is in fact white food coloring mixed with the tears of radioactive pandas—and tomorrow I might publish an enraged screed against something ultimately benign that I’ve dubbed ‘Big Fluoride.

In a few clever paragraphs, the satirical post comments on clickbait, manufactured outrage, and misinformed bloggers whose inaccurate screeds and infographics can quickly go viral, no matter where they get their facts. The story ends with the line: “America’s dairy farmers and importers want to share the real facts about milk. Learn more here,” and links to the micro-site where users can view three “Udder Truth” videos.

I empathize with the dairy industry. I, too, get frustrated when inaccurate and hyperbolic nutrition information goes viral, whether it relates to the alleged “cleansing” and “detoxifying” benefits of drinking lemon water or the dangerous claims that apple cider vinegar can cure cancer.

Although a report earlier this year by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found that fewer than one percent of milk samples contain illegal antibiotics, most of the concern about antibiotics in agriculture relates to their overuse as growth-promotion in poultry, beef, and pork, not dairy cows.

However, the dairy industry campaign merits careful analysis. One video, for example, references “mean tweets” while Dairy Herd Management reports that dairy farmers are “tired of social media and video attacks on their lives and livelihoods.”  In both cases, the attacks are not attributed to any specific individuals or organizations. Contrary to what this emotionally-charged narrative implies, most criticism of the dairy industry I have seen revolves around its business practices and not the actual farmers, in the same way that public health critiques of the tobacco and soda industries have little to do with the farmers who grow tobacco and corn.Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 4.07.32 PM

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The same  video that refers to “mean tweets” is filled with bucolic imagery, and features a farmer telling her audience that her cows “can’t wait for their turn to go in and get milked.” The farmer also mentions that the manure of that farm’s dairy cows is used to power 110 homes in the local community, constructing an environmentally-conscious narrative.

The glossy, feel-good production does little to address serious concerns many have about the dairy industry. Take improper manure management and its detrimental effects on waterways. In one recent case in Washington state, a judge ruled that a large industrial dairy posed an “imminent and substantial endangerment” to the environment and to those who drink the water. The dairy industry has also played a role in creating and advancing “ag-gag” laws which make documentation inside large farms illegal.

While Dairy Management Inc. says it hopes to correct misinformation with this campaign, it is also worth noting those at the top of the dairy industry—not necessarily the farmers—also have a history of twisting the facts.

In 2007, for example, the Federal Trade Commission put a stop to a national dairy industry campaign that linked dairy consumption to weight loss, citing a lack of research to support that claim. And, in 2013, in an effort to make a low-calorie milk, the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Milk Producers Federation filed a petition asking the FDA to to change its standards for milk so that the artificial sweetener aspartame could be added as an ingredient.

The dairy industry’s satiric pitch to Millennials aims to radicalize dissent and equate valid environmental, animal welfare, and policy concerns with tinfoil hat conspiracy theorists and misinformed social media memes. It aims to re-direct or distract readers by flooding the conversation.

Why target Millennials? The generation born between 1982 and 2000 is less likely to drink milk than any other group, and—as the dairy industry is well aware—spending power has shifted from baby boomers to Millennials in recent years. They’ve also come of age at a time when the story behind our food is far more readily available than it has been at other times. Thus, it’s probably not a coincidence that plant-based milks have been on the rise. The almond milk market alone is worth over $700 million.

The campaign also raise questions about The Onion, which is running the sponsored articles in a template that looks nearly identical to its other pieces. Marketing critic Ken Honeywell responded to the publication’s choice to work with the dairy industry in this less-than-clear-cut way on Welldone Marketing. “By creating sponsored content for what is essentially one side of a political cause, they’ve undermined their own authority as a satirical truth-teller,” he wrote. “This comedy institution that has so successfully skewered the conventions of our modern culture has become just another sleazy purveyor of half-truths.”

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But putting questions about The Onion’s integrity aside for the moment, will anyone—young or old—buy the story Dairy Management Inc. is selling here? Or will the industry simply continue to spend loads of money trying to discredit its critics, in hopes it will make it look a little less terrible by comparison?

Until the dairy industry makes a concerted effort to increase transparency and address environmental and animal welfare concerns, slick satirical ads probably won’t do much but further muddy the already-polluted water.


Andy Bellatti, MS, RD is a Las Vegas-based nutritionist with a plant-centric and whole-food focus who takes an interest in food politics, deceptive food marketing, sustainability, and social justice. His work has been published in Grist, The Huffington Post, Today’s Dietitian, Food Safety News, and Civil Eats, among others. He is also the creator and co-founder of Dietitians for Professional Integrity, a group that advocates for ethical and socially responsible partnerships within the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. You can read more of his work on his Small Bites blog and can also follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Read more >

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  1. eco worrier
    Decent farmers need to trust us to know the difference between them and the industrial profiteers and greedy retailers. If not for factory farms and mono-cultured wastelands these problems would not exist and more would be employed in farming. Food and food-security should never have been left to the market. Americans' health is an indictment of this.
  2. PhD still learning
    I have to admit we play fast and loose with our accusations against dairy farms and agriculture in general. I used to think I knew just everything about modern farming...and all of it was, of course, hideous and mean-spirited. Well, I mouthed off among a group of fellow academics who actually work in agriculture and they guilted me into spending a long weekend with them getting on these modern farms and gettng to really know the farmers and their farming practices. I learned a few important things and I am chagrined to admit how incredibly wrong and naive I was when I was bashing famrs with impunity. So, live and learn...if you will lighten up and open your minds to learning. Taking off the tinfoil hats would be a good first step,
  3. Nyfarmer
    And farmers who try to speak are blocked and mocked.
  4. It is always confusing to me that people rarely try to make the distinction between "factory farms", "dairy industry", "industrial profiteers" and "decent farmers" or " dairy farmers". When it comes to the rhetoric, SM, advertising&marketing of anti-dairy/agriculture there is very little distinction. For example this indictment of the campaign is one of the few places one will see an actual admission that " most of the concern about antibiotics in agriculture relates to their overuse as growth-promotion in poultry, beef, and pork, not dairy cows." when it is one of the most frequent accusations I hear in the market, on SM etc...Just because it is the truth doesn't mean it's been well advertised. I'm glad to see them set the record straight.
  5. NYFarmer
    Milk is the work of our hands here in the Northeast. We are looking at a region of beautiful farms that have traditionally supplied urban markets like NYC, Boston and Philadelphia. Fluid milk consumption is also the single most important factor in the price setting mechanisms that determine farmer pay. Beautiful landscapes, hardworking farmers, wide open spaces, rural farm economies deserve far better treatment from Civil Eats than the publication of this piece. No industry is perfect, we strive to improve as best as we can afford. Yet, so many urban writers marginalize us and pump out pieces damning our efforts. When will you let the voice of an average dairy farmer be heard?
  6. Bubb
    Nutritional claims are not the main complaint of most people who disagree with the milk industry and the pushing of milk on the populace as an important and necessary foodstuff.

    Rather it is the very real conditions of suffering and abuse of many cows and their stolen at birth calves (veal) that drive concerned and informed people to eschew milk and milk products. The fact that humans are the ONLY species to drink milk after infancy or to drink the milk of another species at all, coupled with recent research suggesting harmful effects on human physiology due to the acidifying nature of milk ingestion are key drivers in the move away from dairy milk to plant based alternatives that can supply many of the same nutrients with less harm.
  7. Carolyn K.
    The Onion always works from a kernel of truth (uncomfortable truth, usually) and we really ought to reflect on that in this case. True enough we have permitted noisy extremists to appear to speak for us. True enough we have opinions, strong opinions based upon our feelings and emotions and these can seldom be expected to live up to scientific reality, to say nothing of economic reality. Sure, all that The Onion calls us out for, principally due to extreme and even absurd talking points shouted over and over by a few noisy activists. We really need to reflect on the harsh reality our legitimate concerns have been co-opted by professional talking heads pushing unprofessional arguments. I wish our better nature could dominate the discussion.

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