Canada’s new Food Guide was released in January 2019, much to the displeasure of the dairy industry. For as long as the Food Guide existed, milk and dairy were featured prominently as an essential food group.
But when dairy was dropped as its own food group, the dairy industry was furious. The Dairy Farmers of Ontario (DFO), the provincial marketing group representing Ontario dairy farmers, had this to say in a statement after the new Food Guide was released:
“Dairy Farmers of Ontario is extremely concerned that the Guide prefers Canadians consume plant-based proteins rather than dairy and animal-based proteins, and to only consume low-fat dairy without evidence to make these recommendations. We all want a Food Guide that promotes healthy eating.”DFO website
Their statement goes on to question the scientific validity of Health Canada’s Food Guide and states that “Dairy Farmers of Ontario will continue to support a balanced, healthy diet for all Canadians.” Because DFO’s idea of what a “balanced and healthy diet” looks like is at odds with Health Canada’s Food Guide, they aggressively push dairy onto citizens of Ontario through extensive marketing efforts. In a time when dairy is no longer considered necessary for human health, when consumers are moving away from dairy and the industry itself is in decline, how does a provincial marketing group grow its consumer base and ensure its industry remains viable?
The Dairy Education Program
As part of its program to target schools as a way to push their product, DFO has a provincial network of approximately 50 full-time/contract “Dairy Educators.” These educators are certified teachers by the Ontario College of Teachers, and they fulfill the “education” component of DFO’s Dairy Education Program.
“The Dairy Education Program is a pillar of DFO’s mandate and is offered for free to elementary teachers in Ontario. It offers an exciting and interactive learning opportunity that gives students insight into exciting aspects of the dairy industry.”DFO 2018/19 Annual Report
DFO and Dairy Educators work to persuade school boards and teachers to give them access to their classrooms so that they can “educate” children about dairy. To get a sense of the responsibilities and qualifications of these educators, below is a job posting outlining the details.
For a sense of the scope and ubiquity of this program, DFO published these statistics in their 2018/19 Annual Report:
For the 18/19 school year, DFO managed to spread their pro-dairy message to over 250,000 students in 1,527 schools across Ontario. That’s a reach of over 30% of the total schools across the province.
When industry has its hands in the education system, there is often a fine line demarcating what is education and what is marketing. However, this is not one of those times – the Dairy Education Program is blatant marketing. These are not “Dairy Educators” as much as they are Dairy Marketers. This entire “education” program falls under the Marketing section in the DFO’s annual report, pages 31-37. The DFO even calls itself a marketing organization on its website: “We are the marketing group for the largest sector of Ontario agriculture and are proudly owned and operated by Ontario’s Dairy Farmers.” The Marketing and Business Development section also includes the Elementary Milk School Program (which they pride themselves to have provided milk to nearly a million students every day in Ontario schools for 33 years.). It should also be pointed out that in this marketing section is their strategy on Nutrition Outreach and Advocacy, where they write:
To help reinstate dairy as an inspired food choice, it is important for DFO to gain credibility with leading influencers of food, health and lifestyle choices. One key target will be healthcare professionals. (Emphasis added)
(Industry groups targeting healthcare professionals is nothing new. Look at how Big Pharma has historically targeted healthcare professionals to push their products. DFO is taking a page out of their playbook.)
The description of the program in the Annual Report gives us a sense of how aggressive and widespread DFO’s marketing is towards school boards and teacher’s organizations to push their product onto schoolchildren:
With the recent revisions to Canada’s Food Guide, parents, teachers, and school boards need to question why the dairy industry continues to have this much presence inside of their schools. It can no longer be taken for granted that dairy is essential for human health. Because it’s not – Canada’s Food Guide is evidence of that. Moreover, a joint position statement put out by the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada writes:
“It is the position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada that appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain disease . . . Well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence. Source
In addition to what we know about the negative impact that dairy farming has on the environment and its contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions, and how unethical this industry is in its treatment and exploitation of cows and calves, there needs to be a critical examination of why the dairy industry continues to push and market its product to children inside Ontario’s education system. Several criticisms were raised about this program in a 2015 article titled Not everyone agrees with the dairy industry’s push for drinking milk. It may be time to revisit these concerns.
Canada Food Guide: “Be Aware of Food Marketing”
Part of Canada’s Food Guide is dedicated to warning consumers of food marketing and how to limit children’s exposure to food marketing. When we look at DFO’s Dairy Education Program, we see that it is exactly the type of marketing that Health Canada is warning against. Consider the following 3 examples:
1) The Food Guide notes that, “children are susceptible to marketing because: marketing strategies are meant to appeal specifically to kids, like using popular cartoon characters on food products.” Meet Bessie the Cow:
2) The Food Guide notes that, “children are susceptible to marketing because: they have less ability to understand the purpose of marketing.” This is overly apparent in the classroom context, especially in elementary schools. Children are not able to easily discern what is deceptive marketing and what is factual information about a certain topic. As Dairy Educators are clearly marketing a product for DFO, we can only imagine that DFO’s educational message is filled with half-truths that portray this industry in positive light, leaving out the cruel realities and horrific aspects of dairy farming. There is also a serious concern that this program is also providing messaging about health and nutrition that challenges Health Canada recommendations. Speaking about the Food Guide last year, Murray Sherk, chair of DFO, said that “We’re actually very concerned, a bit disappointed about it. Because it makes a lot of recommendations that we feel are not entirely based in science.” This anti-Food Guide sentiment from the chair of DFO provides context for the following Tweet, and may provide insight into the kind of nutrition messaging that is being delivered by Dairy Educators:
3) The Food Guide urges parents and caregivers to think outside the home. It writes that children’s food choices may be influenced by: “materials branded by food companies that are: offered at schools; used in classroom lessons.” This gets to the disturbing core of the issue: DFO is exploiting the school classroom to market their product to children. Children are forced to watch these industry marketing presentations while drinking their little cartons of cow’s milk. It is the responsibility of parents, teachers, and school boards to ensure school classrooms are places for learning, not for shady industry marketing.
For an in-depth analysis of how the meat and dairy industries have managed to work their way into Canadian classrooms to spread their biased message about animal agriculture, see our post Industry in the Classroom: How Big Meat and Dairy Influence the Curriculum in Canadian Schools.
A Final Note
It should be noted that the critiques raised about Dairy Educators are not about the individuals themselves, but about DFO exploiting the Ontario education system to push their members’ product and image through the Dairy Education Program. As Ontario teachers are currently engaged in a protracted dispute with the Ontario Government, and as we find ourselves in an increasingly precarious employment landscape, for a teacher to be OCT certified and find full-time work with the DFO cannot be faulted. However, Dairy Educators need to question the motives of their employer and ask themselves if they are presenting a message to schoolchildren that is transparent, honest, objective, aligned with fundamental values of education, and consistent with evidence-based nutritional science. Or if they are just OCT certified Dairy Marketers engaged in an incredibly unethical practice of marketing a product inside school classrooms to children.