One nation, under cheese

Not many foods contain more saturated fat than cheese. And the average American consumed 33 pounds of it in 2010, three times as much as he or she did in 1970. From fast-food restaurants to the school cafeteria, cheese is ubiquitous – slathered on pizza, layered atop burgers and poured over nachos. Yum!

So what if the obesity rate among adults rose from 14.5 percent in the early 1970s to 35.7 percent in 2010? Only a dietary killjoy would harp on the possible connection between cheese consumption and the nation’s obesity epidemic. Only a nanny-stater like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg would suggest that the government do something about it.

If people want more cheese, that’s between them and the free market, right?

Well, no. The summation of individual choices can have big costs for everyone. Obese people cost health insurers $1,429 more per year than the non-obese do, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Also, the Golden Age of Cheese was not purely the result of individual choices. It reflects decades of pro-cheese U.S. agriculture policy. I am not making this up. The nation’s cheese binge is a case study in the broader dysfunctionality of federal farm legislation, the latest iteration of which is being debated in Congress.

Yes, there are real social trends at work, too. An aging population consumes less milk as fluid and more in solid form; a wealthier population can afford a richer diet, including cheesy dishes eaten at restaurants.

But the country’s appetite for cheese also reflects U.S. policy.

Since the New Deal, Washington has tried to protect dairy farmers through price supports and production controls so arcane that only specialists can understand them.

As a 2004 Agriculture Department report explained, the net effect of dairy programs is to prop up fluid milk prices even when producers make more of it than people want to drink – leaving plenty of excess to dump on cheese manufacturers.

“Thus, consumers see lower butter and cheese prices and higher fluid milk prices than would appear in the absence of the programs,” the USDA found.

Not surprisingly, fluid milk consumption has stagnated while cheese consumption has grown. Of the 188.9 billion pounds of milk produced in 2008, some 82 billion were sold to cheesemakers, according to the USDA.

On top of those warped incentives, the Dairy Production Stabilization Act of 1983 authorized the Agriculture Department to collect a fee from all dairy farmers and turn the money over to a corporation known as Dairy Management, which promotes consumption of cheese and other dairy products.

Dairy Management’s annual budget is about $140 million, some of which it has spent to encourage Domino’s and other fast-food chains to develop menu items containing more cheese. With Dairy Management’s aid, mozzarella, most of which goes on pizza, has become the fastest-growing component of U.S. cheese consumption, accounting for a third of all the cheese we ingested in 2010.

In short, the federal government has put its big thumb on the scale in favor of cheese-eating. This is undoubtedly good for the large, specialized milk producers that increasingly dominate the industry, but it is not obviously in the interest of – well, anyone else.

House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, was not far off in calling the U.S. dairy program “Soviet-style.”

Nor was he incorrect to suggest that the farm bill under discussion would keep the government in the business of manipulating prices and supply, and might make matters worse.

Boehner, of course, is a Republican, but support for farm subsidies is a regional, not partisan, issue, with dairy-state Democrats and Republicans alike lavishing constituents with taxpayer-funded largess.

Many recoil from the prospect of Bloombergian dietary prohibitions. They should spare some outrage for the far more numerous and expensive things government does to encourage consumption of foods that people might not choose to eat or produce in current quantities, if prices and production were left up to the free market.

When you think about it, the whole trillion-dollar farm bill amounts to a vast federal subsidy to this country’s sugary, starchy, cheesy diet, filled out with grain-fed beef, pork and chicken.

I love candy, pizza and hamburgers as much as the next guy. I just don’t see why businesses that profit by supplying that diet deserve an advantage over potential innovators and competitors. Still less do I see why they should get that advantage at taxpayer expense.

Lane is a member of The Washington Post’s editorial board.