How the Food Industry Pays Influencers to Shill Blueberries, Butter, and More

How the Food Industry Pays Influencers to Shill Blueberries, Butter, and More

The research side of the checkoff world has yielded a surprising array of food innovations, like Egg Beaters, the pre-cracked eggs in a milk carton-esque container that was developed with the help of the American Egg Board. Some checkoff boards have taken a more branded approach to developing consumer products that use as much of their respective commodity as possible. The beef and dairy lobbies, for instance, have used their budgets to help devise fast food Frankensteins like Taco Bell’s Grilled Stuft Pizza, Domino’s Philly Cheese Steak Pizza, and Pizza Hut’s 3-Cheese Stuffed Crust Pizza, according to historian Sarah Milov. And in 2007, the national dairy checkoff not only worked with Domino’s to create pizzas that used 40% more cheese, it paid for the advertising campaign behind them.

Now, as media has evolved, so has checkoff board advertising. Unlike a celebrity spokesperson in the ‘90s print ads who may not have had particularly strong opinions about, say, milk or beef, many influencers say they only promote products that they personally believe in. Sammi Haber Brondo, a registered dietitian who’s worked with a number of produce boards, including Potatoes USA, told me that she follows strict criteria for her influencing campaigns. “If I wasn’t aligned with the product, I would not work with it,” she says. “It has to align with me and my nutrition philosophy as a dietitian with a private practice and as someone who has a social media platform.”

All the influencers who talked to me spoke genuinely about their appreciation of the various foods they had promoted. Melissa Harrison, who owns Montana-based catering service Seasonal Montana, says that she has worked with Potatoes USA due to her genuine love of that versatile tuber. “I cherish the potato,” she says. “It’s so universal. Everybody loves potatoes.”

But the boom in social media advertising for foods has drawn criticism, usually toward boards with big budgets like beef, pork, and dairy. Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah recently introduced a bill in hopes of reforming the boards, which they argue don’t even help smaller farms and sometimes participate in “wasteful, anti-competitive, and deceptive behavior.” For example, one complaint is that partnerships with fast food companies (as the Dairy Board has done with Domino’s and Pizza Hut) only benefit big, industrial dairy companies. (Several trade groups that work with checkoff boards have widely denied accusations that they misuse money.)

Many checkoff programs also take a subtle approach as they seek to target younger consumers—and some critics say that a government-endorsed program shouldn’t feature advertisements that could counter overall wellness. Unlike other forms of influencing, ads from checkoff groups are technically no different from government PSAs like Smokey the Bear or McGruff the Crime Dog. It doesn’t quite mean, “The government wants them to say it,” clarifies Helen Norton, a law professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. But it does basically mean, “The government is willing to support it.” That may be fine and good when it comes to sheet-pan salmon with potatoes and peas, a recipe that one dietician and influencer worked on with Potatoes USA. But a beef burger with bacon jam, as celebrity chef Josh Capon developed with the beef board as part of another campaign, raises questions.

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