Commenting on Our Food Future: The Ensuing Policy War Behind the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s Report

by Ally Gallop, RDN, CDE

28,643 comments. That’s how many were submitted during the 75-day public commentary period following the release of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s (DGAC) February 2015 report. And yet, when the 2010 report was released, only 2,186 comments were submitted. That’s over a one thousand percent increase! So why is it that five years later the public has become much more interested in the report that forms the basis for the dietary guidelines?

The DGAC’s report and dietary guidelines: What are they and why do they matter?

Every five years the DGAC reviews the current scientific literature to inform potential updates to the dietary guidelines. Essentially, the two are buddies: A recommendation in the report may lead to a change in the guidelines. The guidelines aren’t solely for health professionals to use as education material for health promotion. Rather, they are major policy tools.

Foods sold, purchased, and served within federal programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the national School Breakfast Program (SBP), and the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) are all decided by the dietary guidelines. They affect the financial future for many food companies, industries, and agricultural production. In 2015 alone, the total cost for SNAP was $74.1 billion. So if the federal government recommends less meat for Americans, then a smaller share of that SNAP budget will be pocketed by the meat industry.

The 2015 DGAC report debuted two controversial topics: the promotion of food system sustainability and the reduced intake of all meat—even lean meat.

What’s the beef with meat?

Suggest a federal document to consider reductions in red meat consumption and expect a rebuttal. Slamming the DGAC, over 50 cattle, pork, and poultry organizations1 rallied together arguing against the downplaying of meat. They contend that red meat—especially lean meat—delivers protein and vital micronutrients. The report found that protein is a nutrient not of concern, since nearly 60% of Americans meet the recommendations. However, the report did flag iron as a nutrient with suboptimal intake. Advocates assert that animal products serve a dual dietary purpose: to help Americans maintain their protein intake and to fill the iron gaps.

Meat proponents felt cheated that lean meat was neither included nor differentiated from the red and processed varieties.  However, the DGAC mentions how lean meat could not be extracted from research studies to be independently and fairly assessed. For instance, studies within the systematic review provided multiple definitions for meat including “red meat, processed meat, and poultry.” Proponents argue that in light of clear evidence, why exclude lean meat?

The report correlated meat consumption with a myriad of health conditions. For obesity and type 2 diabetes, lower consumption of red and processed meats was beneficial. From a current public health perspective, 78.6 million Americans are obese, 20.9 million have type 2 diabetes, and 26.6 million have cardiovascular disease. Combined, these three diet-related diseases cost the health care system $500 billion annually. Thus, the DGAC should care about counseling against meat.

From an additional angle, supporters claimed meat to be a valuable source of protein for growing schoolchildren. Combined, the SBP and the NSLP provide more than 40 million meals to schoolchildren each day. These meals must abide by the dietary guidelines as well as having specified food portions. The USDA’s current NSLP requirements mandate that a meal must include 1.5 – 2 oz. of meat or meat alternate. To commenters, if meat is limited, then schoolchildren are malnourished. Yet the USDA clearly is open to meat alternates like beans and legumes. Protein would still be on the plate, and nutrition restored.

But is the fight for meat purely about nutrition? Organizations representing cattlemen and women were quick to defend their livelihood. They claim that without demand for meat, they will suffer economic losses. In response, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) recently quantified the money made from NSLP’s inclusion of animal products. The PCRM detailed how:

“In 2013, the USDA paid more than $500 million to 62 meat and dairy producers for beef, chicken, turkey, pork, fish, dairy, eggs, and lamb that ended up in school meals. Six of those 62 companies received a combined $331 million.”

Source: Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, 2015.
Source: Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, 2015.

Where does sustainability fit in?

It doesn’t. Or at least this is what two current House and Senate appropriations bills are pushing for.

The House’s bill demands all revised or additional guidelines must be considered as Grade 1 Strong scientific evidence. The Senate’s bill wants all information included in the future guidelines to be “solely nutritional and dietary in nature.” Note: They want no mention of sustainability. Essentially, the two bills aim to restrict the scientists’ findings and drastically affect the report’s outcome.

“To retrospectively superimpose requirements on restrictions on the use of the report is somewhat troubling,” states DGAC member Dr. Alice Lichtenstein. “A rubric was used to grade the quality of the [systematic] reviews or individual studies. Moderate- and high-quality studies were included. The reason to do that is to avoid cherry-picking perspectives to what may align with a scientist’s own.” And yet it’s the cherry-picking of studies that both the bills and controversial investigative journalist Nina Teicholz have used in their arguments downplaying the report.

The bills spearheaded by Republicans have been accused of extreme bias. Between 2013 and 2014, the politicians backing the bills acquired $3 million from food-related donors. Those senators signing their names in support of the bills collected nearly half a million dollars solely from the beef and cattle industries.

Republicans and commenters alike argued how the inclusion of sustainability goes beyond the mandate of the DGAC. Their role, as outlined by the charter, instructs that the report “shall contain nutritional and dietary information and guidelines for the general public… and shall be based on the preponderance of scientific and medical knowledge current at the time of publication.” Yet the DGAC is looking out for the general public in their definition of sustainability:

“Access to sufficient, nutritious, and safe food is an essential element of food security for the U.S. population. A sustainable diet ensures this access for both the current population and future generations” (part A, page 7, lines 253-255).

Meat proponents’ interpretation of this is that environmental concerns trump human nutrition. Many read the report’s finding that “a healthy diet pattern…lower in red and processed meat” translated into vegetarianism. However, the report emphasizes that no food or group need to be eliminated in the quest to promote health. Reading through thousands of public comments, this valuable point was missed.

The Committee’s response: Leave the report alone

In an unprecedented move, the DGAC submitted a letter to the Appropriations Committee eloquently defending their report. They declare that it’s not solely meat and sustainability that would be stripped from the report. Also removed would be diet-related health parameters, physical activity, preventive dietary interventions, population health strategies, food insecurity, and the health risks correlated with certain foods and additives. If the bills’ riders are passed, the DGAC acknowledges how “this would be seriously deleterious to addressing the Nation’s preventable health and nutrition problems.”

And they didn’t stop there. A week after the release of the British Medical Journal’s controversial article questioning if the guidelines are scientific, as well as a retraction to false statements made within that article, the DGAC submitted a lengthy rapid response expanding on the critique’s falsehood. “Those commenting on the report have not been held to the same [scientific] standards that the committee has,” says Dr. Lichtenstein.

So now what?

Congress needs to make its decision regarding the outcome of the two bills. The Agriculture Committee is holding a hearing on October 7, 2015 to discuss the guidelines with USDA Secretary Vilsak and Health and Human Services Secretary Burwell. Eventually, the newest version of the guidelines will be penned by the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.

For Dr. Lichtenstein, involvement in this year’s committee has been rather novel. “It has been an interesting experience because social media has played a larger role than any other time. All with the unique twist that Congress has gotten involved.”

Unfortunately, the report and the ensuing guidelines have blatantly become more about political and financial power than the protection of America’s health. A health that truly is the committee mandate’s main focus amongst this media debacle.

Note: Be sure to attend the Friedman Seminar on Wednesday, October 14 at 12:15pm featuring Tufts’ professors Miriam Nelson (DGAC committee member) and Tim Griffin (DGAC consultant) as they delve further into the dietary guidelines and sustainability.

1 Commenters per the dietary guidelines website had the option of maintaining anonymity or stating their name and/or an affiliated organization. There are likely more organizations commenting against the findings on meat that requested anonymity status.

Ally Gallop, RD, CDE is a second-year nutrition communication and behavior change student focusing in U.S. food and nutrition policy. Her favorite plant-centered snack involves dipping pear slices into peanut butter.

The Friedman Sprout is a monthly student run newspaper that aims to serve the student population at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, prospective students, and alumni. Our mission is to report on newsworthy information that affects the Friedman community including nutrition research, food policy, internship and volunteer opportunities, as well as school events. Our editorial slant is that of sustainability in food and nutrition.

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