When Republicans in the House of Representatives re-named fried potatoes “Freedom Fries” for political reasons in 2003, we were amused. A decade further into the national obesity epidemic, we’re not laughing.

Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. One-third suffer from diet-related illness. We invest massively in treating cardiovascular disease, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes and other preventable illnesses, while funds trickle into prevention and wellness programs. A full one-third of our national diet even today is burgers, sandwiches, pizza, dessert, sweet snacks and sugary beverages, according to government estimates based on a national dietary survey. Only half of Americans exercise regularly, yet we find time to watch an average of 5 hours of television per day.

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We chart these critical state-of-the-nation data and their policy implications every five years, through the Dietary Guidelines for Americans issued by the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services. The departments commission a team of scientific experts to review current science for almost two years, take ongoing public comments and hold public hearings, and draft a report with up-to-date diet and wellness advice, which is then also put out for public comment. The resulting science-based roadmap for preventing chronic disease is perhaps the most far-reaching, useful public health information the U.S. government produces.

And yet, since the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee reported its findings in February, Republican senators and representatives have been busy running interference for the food industry.

In March, 71 GOP representatives and 30 Republican senators signed letters critical of the Advisory Committee Report, specifically attacking the recommendations against eating less red meat and lowering sodium on behalf of the cattle and restaurant industries, among others. Those same politicians received more than $3 million in donations from food-related donors from 2013 to 2014 alone. Senators who signed the letter received almost half a million dollars just from the beef and cattle industries, according to campaign contribution records from OpenSecrets.com.

Their latest volley is even more underhanded and anti-science. House appropriators snuck riders into the bills funding Agriculture and Health and Human Services. Updates to the 2010 guidelines would be subjected to an unprecedentedly high standard of scientific evidence and limited to “matters of diet and nutrient intake,” thus sweeping away 20 months of carefully studied advice on physical activity or policies to create a healthier environment. If the House has its way, the 2015 guidelines might be stripped of such common-sense advice as recommending workplace wellness programs or asking parents to model healthy eating at family meals. (In addition, House report language would delay the effective date of a ban by the Food and Drug Administration on artificial trans fat and prevent development of new voluntary guidance to lower sodium levels in foods.)

As the entire membership of the Dietary Guidelines Committee made clear in an unprecedented letter to Congress, this eleventh-hour play for an industry-friendly Dietary Guidelines would put health advice to Americans in the hands not of physicians and scientists but politicians. So we looked at the money taken in by those involved.

Our analysis last week, Congressional Catering, showed that the 30 Republican senators who signed the March 12, 2015, letter critical of the advice in the report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee received more than a million dollars from the food industry in 2013 and 2014, with more than half of that total coming from the red meat industry.

The seventy-one House signers of a similar letter received more than $2 million. According to a press release by the letter’s lead sponsor in the House, Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), supporters of the letter included many of the major food trade associations, and particularly those with an interest in meat consumption, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Pork Producer’s Council, National Restaurant Association, Livestock Marketing Association, North American Meat Institute and others.

In addition, the contributions on a party basis are remarkably lopsided. For the whole House Appropriations Committee, 84 percent of food and agriculture sector contributions went to Republicans and 16 percent to Democrats. On the full Senate Appropriations Committee, 98 percent of food and agriculture money went to Republicans compared to 2 percent to Democrats. Across both chambers and parties, total money from food interests to members of the Appropriations committees was at least $1,464,437.

These sums are large but easily expended by the food industry, with a net worth that numbers in the trillions. Perhaps the saddest aspect of this is not that our democracy can be bought, but that its meager price tag is such an incredible bargain for the food industry. A small army of politicians willing to oppose publication of the most-up-to-date scientific health advice that could save Americans’ lives? That costs a mere $3 million. An appropriations bill riddled with riders to protect the continued profits of the food industry? Now that’s priceless.

 

MacCleery is director of regulatory affairs of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.