February 14–21, 2002
Hey, y’ever notice how calcium is in everything these days — not just dairy products and leafy greens, but orange juice, soy milks, waffles, even graham crackers and cough drops? You might think the "Calcium Summit II" event would examine all these sources and compare them with, say, cow’s milk in terms of pros and cons.
Think again. At the Calcium Summit, calcium equals milk. End of story.
This was the message at January’s conference in Washington, D.C., where the narrow focus on getting kids to drink milk provided a sharp contrast with our Chinatown conference’s haphazard diversity.
You see, even though America has a higher per-capita calcium intake than most other countries, we’re in a "calcium crisis," necessitating this free event for health workers and media.
The setting, the technology and the presentations were all highly professional, but soon became redundant, as though they were all poured from the same homogenized carton.
Maybe that’s because they were, as the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) found through a Freedom of Information Act request. BSMG Worldwide, the ad agency for America’s dairy farmers, assigned many presenters their topics, their titles, their talking points and, in some cases, their PowerPoint slides, in addition to their honoraria.
PCRM held a morning counter-event across the hall from the Calcium Summit, putting calcium and dairy in context for overall bone strength. But amusingly, the summit attendees were protected from the PCRM by a series of 20-foot-tall, heavy, black curtains draped across the entire hall. These forced journalists who had heard about the PCRM event to trek up the stairs, around past the front entrance of the building, down a side hall and back down to a smaller conference room.
After a rather somnolent morning seminar, I enjoyed Neal Barnard’s animated Q&A session, but even better was a handout — the book CalciYum!, packed with a wide variety of tasty dairy-free recipes chock-full of calcium.
Returning to the summit, I was back in a world where green leafy vegetables like collards (with as much calcium as milk) are irrelevant because "no children will eat them," and where the fortified orange juice (more calcium than milk per serving) I see on supermarket shelves everywhere apparently has not yet been invented.
Sure, as a confirmed non-milk-drinker going in, I was skeptical about how dairy would be positively compared to other calcium sources. I expected the role of excess protein in sucking calcium out of bones to be downplayed along with the fact that the majority of the world’s adults are lactose intolerant. I expected the mainstream controversies over rBGH, a bovine growth hormone, and antibiotic overuse to be ignored. But I didn’t expect this audacious strategy: The only true calcium source is milk, so no discussion of anything else is called for.
This tunnel vision was considered unremarkable, I found, in conversations with various earnest representatives and organizational partners. Stanley Wallach, executive director of the American College of Nutrition, shrugged off the distortion of nutrition information. "There’s a bias," he agreed. "Sure there’s a bias. We all have our little hang-ups."
Yep. Kurt Graetzer of the milk-mustache campaign crowed about how a new initiative to flood schools with chocolate-milk vending machines will get "the product" straight to these young consumers: "That’s a lot of gallons of milk," he said, and then, forgetting he wasn’t at the annual board meeting, "and a lot of money."
Every industry deserves to have a convention, to swap ideas, to draw press coverage, whatever. But when you cast your trade show as a public health seminar, you invite a higher standard of scrutiny. And even knowing who was behind this, I was fascinated by the degree to which "dairy über alles" was pushed at the expense of viable alternatives.
To put it simply, I expected them to milk it; I just didn’t expect so much cheese.