Farm Subsidies

Vegan Group Sues the U.S. Department of Agriculture for Promoting Dairy Products

The government should let milk marketing stand on its own four legs.


A lawsuit filed last week in federal court by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) and a trio of doctors affiliated with the group claims U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) policies urging Americans to double the average consumption of dairy products has everything to do with protecting and promoting dairy farmers and little or nothing to do with nutrition.

The suit, filed against the USDA, centers largely on 2020 federal dietary guidelines that recommend Americans consume three servings of dairy every day. These latest dietary guidelines, which are updated every five years, were adopted by the heads of the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and were based on the work of an appointed dietary guidelines advisory committee. While the dietary guidelines don't impose any dietary requirements on individual Americans, they help determine which foods the government serves to prison inmates, members of the military, schoolchildren, and others.

The suit asks the court to order the USDA to stop promoting dairy products, stop "equating 'protein' with meat," and stop "hiding" what the plaintiffs claim are "the ill effects of consuming meat and dairy products." (What are the "ill effects" of dairy? The plaintiffs argue the USDA should not promote dairy products largely because around 1 in 4 Americans is lactose intolerant. The suit claims most Asians, African Americans, Ashkenazi Jews, Native Americans, and Latinos are lactose intolerant, which is supported by independent data.) 

Though I eat meat every day and consume dairy products most days—and disagree strenuously with PCRM about the general healthfulness of those foods—I welcome the lawsuit. Indeed, I've long argued against the USDA's foolish and wasteful promotion of dairy products. Despite spending billions in subsidies, the USDA hasn't helped struggling dairy farmers to thrive. In fact, just the opposite is true. Decades of central planning have harmed America's dairy farmers. American cow-milk consumption is plummeting and the nation's dairy farmers are going out of business. 

There's a word for money spent that doesn't achieve its intended goal: waste. If successful, PCRM's lawsuit could help eliminate some of that waste.

The problem isn't going away by itself. Absurd USDA dairy policies are highly unlikely to change under President Joe Biden. Current USDA secretary Tom Vilsack shamelessly promoted large dairy interests for eight years as Barack Obama's USDA secretary, then left to become head of the nation's largest dairy promoter, and now is back helming the USDA.

Though it's easy enough to blame the USDA for its practices, the real problem lies with Congress, which hands the agency billions upon billions of dollars to throw at U.S. farmers. That said, the USDA regularly goes above and beyond its congressional mandate to promote the dairy industry. (E.g., paying Domino's to develop a cheesier pizza.)

Like many Americans, I consume some quantity of dairy products almost every day. Some people, including vegans and people who are allergic to dairy products, avoid them at all costs. Neither dietary approach is right for everyone. And the choice to consume dairy products (or any other food) should be left to the individual.

That's why the USDA should neither promote nor restrict my dietary choices, your dietary choices, the dairy industry as a whole, or the dietary preferences of PCRM and its members.