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How USDA is changing what we eat

Purestock/ThinkstockPhotos Cheeseburger closeup
Since the 1990s, the money for product promotion campaigns came from mandatory fees charged to producers to fund the industry organizations.

by Leslie Patton

Sonic Corp. is mixing chopped mushrooms with ground beef to make cheeseburgers, and the U.S. government is behind it.

Sonic Signature Slingers are a calculated effort of the farmer-funded Mushroom Council, one of 22 such rah-rah groups created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to promote commodities such as cotton, mangoes and Christmas trees.

Since the 1990s, the money for campaigns like “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner” and “Got Milk?” came from mandatory fees charged to producers to fund the industry organizations. Now the payments are under threat from cattle ranchers and their congressional allies who want to make them optional. They say they’d prefer that advertising not benefit rival beef producers from other countries, who also pay fees, because U.S. beef is best. 

In the meantime, mushroom farmers are cashing in. In the year ended Jan. 28, U.S. sales rose 4.9% to $1.24 billion compared with a year earlier, according to the Mushroom Council.

Farmer Payback 

On average, farmers get paid back about $9 for every dollar spent on the marketing, according to a study co-authored by Gary Williams, professor of agricultural economics at Texas A&M University. For example, the United Soybean Board return is $5.20 on average, while egg farmers get back $8.11.

“The programs are highly effective,” Williams said. “It’s a very good return per dollar invested.”

Still, some large producers balk at the fees, and some have filed suit against the USDA.

In 2016, the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America, a nonprofit that advocates for independent U.S. ranchers, filed a complaint arguing the required fees violate the First Amendment by forcing them to subsidize speech they don’t agree with. The group supports Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee’s legislation prohibiting mandatory checkoff fees. 

“We’re forced to pay and advertise foreign beef in the U.S.,” said Bill Bullard, chief executive officer of the Montana-based legal fund. “We have a superior product, and it’s coveted the world over.”

In March, Sonic introduced two temporary menu items -- hamburgers with a beef and white-button-mushroom patty, one with and one without bacon. The bacon-free burger has 340 calories, compared with 710 for a regular Sonic cheeseburger, and the chain says it has all the flavor “with none of the guilt.”

Two Years

The burgers were more than two years in the making, created and tested at Sonic’s Oklahoma City headquarters with the help of the Mushroom Council. Sonic had to figure out how to hawk them, said Scott Uehlein, vice president of product innovation and development at the 3,500-location chain. 

“It’s a tough story to sell,” Uehlein said. “But it’s a cool thing.”

“The consumer wants something that’s better for you,” he added. “They want things that are indulgent. It checks all the boxes.” 

The Mushroom Council likes to say it’s also inspired chefs at Cheesecake Factory Inc., Shake Shack Inc. and Darden Restaurants Inc.’s Seasons 52 chain.

Recently, blueberries landed on the menu at steakhouse chain Sizzler USA Inc. in the form of a blueberry lemonade -- considered a big win for the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council, which worked on bringing the refreshment to the chain’s menu. Sizzler had 123 outlets as of last year, according to Technomic.

Because the fruit isn’t in season during the winter, Mission Viejo, California-based Sizzler is getting them from Peru. In May, the company will add more blueberries, as part of a spinach salad with almonds and feta cheese.

“Because the growers all pay into this fund, they want to know what the council is doing for them,” said Andrew Hunter, a chef who works with the mushroom, egg and blueberry marketing programs. “This is a tangible way for boards to say, ‘This is what we’re doing for you.’ Sizzler’s blueberry lemonade. That’s tangible.”

Higher Demand

In 2015, blueberries were added to menus in more than 8,000 chain restaurant locations, according to the council, which has also worked with Dairy Queen, Wendy’s Co. and Red Lobster in recent years. The council says its efforts have led to higher demand.

The American Egg Board focuses on dining chains with at least 600 locations, said John Howeth, the group’s senior vice president of market development. The top four it targets: McDonald’s Corp., Burger King, Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks Corp.

In November, the board, along with agency BBDO Worldwide Inc., relaunched its “Incredible Edible Egg” ad campaign from decades ago with the tagline: “How do you like your eggs?” But the name has been shortened. It’s now “The Incredible Egg.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Leslie Patton in Chicago at [email protected]

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Nick Turner at [email protected]

Bob Ivry, Lisa Wolfson

© 2018 Bloomberg L.P

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