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Doctors Provoke Dairy Industry Backlash, Say Cheese Is Unhealthy

Digital Vision/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- A provocative billboard from a nonprofit physicians’ group planned for display near Lambeau Field in Wisconsin has stirred controversy even before it goes up.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C., has announced the ad, which includes the Grim Reaper wearing a “Cheesehead” hat and which carries an ominous message, “Warning: Cheese Can Sack Your Health. Fat. Cholesterol. Sodium.”

“Cheese has somehow managed [to be marketed] as some kind of health food, which is exactly the opposite of what it is,” says Susan Levin, a registered dietitian who is the director of nutrition education for PCRM. “It is an incredibly unhelpful food product with loads of fat, cholesterol and sodium.  It is a pretty toxic food for people to be consuming.”

The message itself is certainly enough to stoke a backlash in Wisconsin, where the economy leans heavily on the dairy industry. But the location of the billboard itself seems designed to provoke a reaction. The Cheesehead, of course, is worn proudly by thousands of fans of the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, who play their home games at legendary Lambeau Field. The new billboard will be placed strategically along U.S. Highway 41 near the stadium, so that all those tailgaters would have something to think about in the parking lots on Sundays as they gobble up deep-fried cheese curds and Cheesehead Beer Cheese Soup.

"That visual is going to resonate more near a Packers’ game for obvious reasons,” Levin says. “We wanted to draw attention to the fact that cheese is unhealthy, and we think that [this] is a good place to get that attention.”

The billboard was scheduled to go up Monday, but bad weather has apparently delayed its going up until Tuesday. But that hasn’t stopped Wisconsin’s $26-billion dairy industry from starting to fight back.

“They are taking a page out of PETA’s book on this. They are trying to shock people,” says Patrick Geoghegan of Wisconsin’s Milk Marketing Board. Geoghegan characterizes PCRM as a fringe group with a “vegan agenda” that is more about animal rights than human health.

“People have been eating cheese for thousands of years,” says Geoghegan. “Many cheeses are an excellent source of calcium and a source of high-quality protein and phosphorus. It tastes great. We should enjoy it.”

PCRM is also facing potential legal action from Foamation, a family-owned Wisconsin business that owns the trademark to the Cheesehead brand. “We asked them to remove our product from the billboard,” says Edward Sarskas, an attorney for the company. “If they fail to comply we will have to consider all options, including going to a judge to order that it be taken down.”

But PCRM, which paid $3,500 for a month of space on the billboard, says this is about free speech rights. “There’s no way that anyone could perceive this as an attack on a hat,” Dan Kinburn, the organization’s general counsel told ABC News. “No one is criticizing the hat. No one is criticizing Packer fans. The only one being criticized is the dairy industry. The message is that dairy and cheese are bad food.” Kinburn says that as soon as the weather clears, the billboard will go up as planned.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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