Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Federal policy and the McRib

The McDonald's McRib is back in the news again. A mocking Twitter feed is under way.  Now is a good time to revisit the federal government's role in this industrial concoction, a perfect symbol of a food system gone mad.

The McRib was originally developed with support from the federal government's pork checkoff program.  Of all the things this federal program has accomplished over the decades, the McRib deserves mention right up front.  The National Pork Board's 2006 annual report (.pdf) boasted in its first paragraph:
The Pork Checkoff celebrated 20 years of progress in 2006. Taking a look back and reflecting on where we are today, I am reminded of the impact that the Pork Checkoff has had on the industry, such as moving from being a net importer of pork to one of the largest exporters of pork in the world; creating new products like the very successful McRib; developing education programs such as Pork Quality Assurance™ to help producers ensure consumers of a safe, wholesome product; and repositioning pork from a second thought to top-of-mind awareness.

The pork checkoff program sometimes is mistaken for a private sector trade association.  It is not.  Like all the federal checkoffs, it uses the federal government's power of taxation to collect a mandatory assessment or tax from all pork producers, whether they voluntarily want to pay or not.  The checkoff is managed by the National Pork Board, whose members are appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture.  Program oversight is provided by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service.  Every marketing message is approved by the federal government, with official status as "government speech."

The McRib stands for the proposition that the federal government should help the pork industry promote any product, no matter how contrary to the government's own dietary guidance efforts in the midst of an epidemic of overweight and chronic disease.

Here is the nutrition facts panel, with 450 Calories, 40% of a day's saturated fat, 37% of a day's sodium, and an overall grade of "D" from Caloriecount.

I can understand why McDonald's wants to market this kind of stuff.  I am sure it is profitable.  But, why can't the federal government exercise more discretion in its own choice of products for the federal checkoff programs?  Isn't there anybody in the whole chain of oversight for the pork checkoff who is embarrassed to be associated with the McRib?

1 comment:

Sean B. Cash said...

Hi Parke,

Thanks for posting this!

The McRib is also getting some attention for some of its less natural ingredients lately, e.g.,