(Feb. 20) A Kansas City sports columnist likes to give out grades to many of the Chiefs football players, coaches and front office staff. For example, for the most recent season, several players and coaches on the Chiefs’ “Swiss cheese” defense (no offense intended to the cheese — that comes later) received D or F grades this year.

I’m sure they were demoralized. Even years removed from the classroom, getting graded is powerful stuff.

Though I didn’t ask for letter grades (nobody would risk giving them if I did), I quizzed several industry leaders on their perspective on the Bush administration and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman’s first two years.

The Bush team gets mixed, but generally positive, reviews.

The extremely aggressive trade stance of U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick is a little unnerving for some industry leaders. They want to make sure any deal is a two-way street and are waiting to see the reciprocal gains due the produce industry from trade agreements. Some simply don’t believe the upside will be there for U.S. growers in pacts with Central and South America.

On the plus side, the White House appears to be more focused on disease prevention than any other administration that has come before. Health and Human Services nutrition education funding of $125 million for the 2004 budget is far more than has been devoted before.

FARM BILL

The farm bill has a few elements that are favorable to the fruit and vegetable industry, some of which were a credit to the work of the Congress. One of those was the groundbreaking $6 million pilot program to distribute fresh produce to students in four states.

From industry responses, I would say Veneman grades out on the honor roll, with perhaps an incomplete grade or two.

Of most importance, many credit her for the 5 a Day partnership within the USDA. Veneman also helped craft the limited transfer of Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service personnel to the Department of Homeland Security.

Notwithstanding the controversies surrounding issues like the dairy industry’s new 3 a Day marketing effort, the flap over Section 32 funds used for disaster relief and the disputed USDA rule allowing resumed imports of Spanish clementines, industry leaders say Veneman’s knowledge of fruit and vegetable issues is invaluable.

The produce industry has a friend in Veneman, though they know it won’t always make a difference in matters of policy.

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Faithful reader and retired industry leader Don Wolf of Salinas, Calif., sent me a copy of a Newsweek article on the American diet. You may have seen the Jan. 20 cover story, “The Perfect Diet: What science tells us about food and health.”

Wolf highlighted a sentence in the story that noted that the dietary advice to eat more vegetables is a universal point of consensus among health professionals.

LACK OF AD FUNDING

The article summarized: “There isn’t a diet guru on earth who denies their virtues. Heart doctors endorse them, cancer doctors endorse them, the USDA endorses them, even the low-carb king Dr. Robert Atkins endorses them. Unfortu-nately, no one can afford to promote spinach or bell peppers the way snack makers promote their goods.”

The article notes that McDonalds spent $1.1 billion in advertising in 2001, compared to the few millions that 5 a Day promotion programs can tap.

The diet battles continue and will intensify with the reauthorization of child nutrition programs his year.

We all can agree that Americans eat too much candy and pop, too much junk food. You can add too much milk fat to the list as well.

The dairy industry continues to get singed by publicity about the ill-conceived 3 a Day program. The latest coverage I read was an article in the Feb. 12 edition of the online version of The New York Times.

In the story, Marian Burrows reports a comment from Bonnie Liebman, the nutrition director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest saying that the “dairy industry has never been willing to recommend low-fat dairy products even though that’s what health professionals think Americans should eat.” In fact, cheese is the biggest source of fat in the American diet, the story notes.

Unfortunately, the government has a conflict of interest when it comes to dietary recommendations of dairy products.

For 2002, government purchases of surplus nonfat dry milk totaled 684 million pounds. If you add in subsidized exports, the net removal from the market totaled 828 million pounds.

MILK INTO INFINITY

Though government intervention in the market and purchases of dairy products were supposed to sunset as a result of a provision in the 1996 farm bill, Congress reversed that, and now the government has an opened-ended offer to buy as much milk as anybody wants to sell. This system apparently won’t end anytime soon.

Import quotas on dairy products also aid income support to dairy. In addition, a new direct payment scheme written into last year’s farm bill was designed to help small milk producers.

Consider the quandary at the USDA. How can it cut dairy servings out of the Women, Infants and Children package when the agency would probably then be on the hook for buying the resulting surplus?

The fruit and vegetable industry has no such good fortune when it comes to government support. Fruits and vegetables have only this: Every diet guru, including government nutritionists, thinks Americans should eat more of them.

Now, the dairy industry wants to elbow in on the public health blessing of 5 a Day with its 3 a Day plan — a plan that overshoots dietary guidelines and ultimately will encourage overconsumption of high-fat cheeses to the detriment of public health. No matter the spin, it is bad policy.