BOSTON — IN the past decade, advocates have targeted a score of foods as unsafe to eat. Now a debate seems to be breaking out over a product once considered a mealtime staple: whole milk.
The immediate focus of the debate is the National School Lunch Program, a $4.72 billion operation that is required under federal law to offer a choice of either whole or low-fat milk to 25 million schoolchildren.
Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana has introduced legislation to overturn that regulation, giving the 29,000 schools in the lunch program the choice of serving either whole fat, low fat, or skim milk.
Although the legislation would leave schools free to serve whole milk, many schools would choose to serve only low-fat milk, says Kevin Dando of the American School Food Service Association (ASFSA), which represents 65,000 cafeteria workers across the country.
The association supports the legislation, Mr. Dando says, because the Lugar bill will give "greater flexibility to schools" in making their milk purchases.
Few outside the Senate had heard of Lugar's bill, introduced in February 1991, until it received the support of a prominent booster: Philip Sokolof, the Omaha millionaire who has made a crusade out of convincing big food companies to serve lower-fat products.
After winning battles to lower the fat content of products ranging from cookies to fast-food french fries, Mr. Sokolof has launched a costly campaign to convince Americans to switch from whole milk to the low-fat or skim varieties. He fired what he calls the opening volley of his campaign in early June with a series of full-page advertisements that read "CONGRESS, STOP USING OUR KIDS AS A DUMPING GROUND FOR DAIRY FARMERS!"
The ads, which cost $220,000, appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today and five other major newspapers.
ASFSA's Dando praises Sokolof's advertisements as helpful in generating momentum, but he adds that parts of the ads were "rather misleading" - for example, a section that said "our children are eating food doused in highly saturated fat butter."
"Food in school lunches is not doused in butter," Dando says indignantly.
Dairy farmers are even less happy with Sokolof's campaign.
The National Milk Producers Association, which represents over half of all United States dairy farmers, is lobbying hard against the Lugar bill.
"It's not true that whole milk is bad for you," argues Jeanine Kenney, a milk producers' lobbyist. She points to studies that suggest growing kids need more fat than adults.
The milk industry, which had sales of $18.1 billion last year, is concerned that the Lugar bill would hurt its bottom line. Milk consumption declined by 5 percent in the 1980s, although consumption of skim and low-fat milk increased dramatically. The overall slump in sales occurred because many of those who stopped drinking whole milk do not like watery skim milk, Ms. Kenney says.
"Some people just prefer the taste of whole milk," Kenney explains. "If you take away that option [from school kids], they will simply stop drinking milk."
Strong opposition to Lugar's bill from Sens. Dave Durenberger (R) and Paul Wellstone (D) of Minnesota, along with other dairy state representatives, has stalled the legislation in committee.
Senate staff members say they have no idea when the bill will be voted upon.
Sokolof himself admits that the Lugar bill probably will not pass this year. But he is "almost positive" that it will pass next session - thanks to the public attention he has directed towards the issue.
"You can intimidate senators if you can get a message to the public," Sokolof says confidently. "They are responsive to public opinion."