The legal basis for sustainability in the Dietary Guidelines

Today, the House Agriculture Committee is holding a hearing on the stir caused by the meat industry surrounding the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

In an apparent attempt to reduce the grilling by certain committee members, the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services both announced yesterday that they would not incorporate sustainability into the final version of the document.

This is a politically-motivated decision and is not based on either law or science. The meat lobby is not happy with the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s (DGAC) conclusion that the government recommended cutting back on hamburgers, hotdogs, and other unhealthy animal foods, both for the sake of our own health, and that of the planet.

The current dietary guidelines update (it happens every five years) has become quite contentious, with Congress attempting to intervene to protect certain food industry interests. This, despite copious scientific evidence from the DGAC that a diet consisting of mostly plant food is health-promoting and that our current meat-eating habits are simply not sustainable; but of course, nothing is ever simple in Washington.

Meanwhile, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom VilsackThomas J. VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE had already decided that the DGAC’s recommendation regarding sustainability was, as he condescendingly put it, “coloring outside the lines.” According to Sec. Vilsack, the enabling legislation (aka “statutory authority”) does not allow him to consider the environmental impact of our dietary choices.  

But a closer look reveals that the issue of “statutory authority” as a political excuse to avoid following the science, and thereby angering the meat industry. Based on a plain reading of the statute and a historical analysis, sustainability not only can be considered in the dietary guidelines, but to be true to the law’s intent, should be.

The National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act of 1990 simply states (PDF) that every five years, a report called “Dietary Guidelines for Americans … shall contain nutritional and dietary information and guidelines for the general public”. Nothing in the words “nutritional and dietary” precludes how food is produced.

The law also requires that the report “be based on the preponderance of the scientific and medical knowledge which is current at the time the report is prepared”.The preponderance of scientific knowledge currently tells us that food production impacts our diet, and thus should be considered as part of the DGA.

In addition, under the definitions to the overall statute the term"nutrition monitoring and related research"includes factors such asfood supply and demand determinations”. How can we talk about the food supply without talking about how to produce enough food for everyone to eat?

Sec. Vilsack also said that sustainability is important; he just thinks it should be dealt with somewhere else, not in the dietary guidelines. But this position contradicts Congressional intent. For example, one of the specified purposes of the statute is to “establish a central Federal focus for …Federal nutrition monitoring activities.”

Moreover,Congressman Bill Emerson (Republican from Missouri) said during the House debate over the bill: “We must ensure that the Federal Government speaks with one voice when it disseminates information on dietary guidance to Americans. …”

Also, Senator Bob Dole (Republican from Kansas) cited the goal that “that the American public receives the most up-to-date and comprehensive dietary guidance possible so that healthful dietary decisions may be made.”

For Americans to make “healthful dietary decisions”, “the most up-to-date and comprehensive dietary guidance”, necessarily includes how their food was produced.

In addition, the previous three versions of the DGA included issues that could be interpreted as falling outside of the statutory authority for “nutritional and dietary information” and yet no questions were raised. For the first time in 2000, physical activity and food safety were added and were both included again in 2005.

The 2005 DGA contains an entire chapter on physical activity and the main justification for its inclusion is “health, sense of well-being, and maintenance of a healthy body weight”, very broad concepts.

The 2010 DGA saw an even larger expansion beyond “nutritional and dietary information”. For first time, the report went into depth on societal factors that influence diet and health. Notably, this version occurred on Sec. Vilsack’s watch.

One of the recommendations that year was to “limit screen time” because of the connection to weight gain. Screen time certainly is not “nutritional or dietary”, and yet Sec. Vilsack endorsed this recommendation without controversy.

The 2010 DGA also invokes the importance of considering future generations: “By working together through policies, programs, and partnerships, we can improve the health of the current generation and take responsibility for giving future generations a better chance to lead healthy and productive lives.” How we can talk about “future generations” without mentioning sustainability?

Finally, under “guiding principles”, the 2010 DGA included the very words “sustainable agriculture” in the context of ensuring “that all Americans have access to nutritious food”. The 2010 DGA called upon the nation to: “Develop and expand safe, effective, and sustainable agriculture and aquaculture practices to ensure availability of recommended amounts of healthy foods to all segments of the population.”

This rather banal recommendation from 2010 is clear evidence that the current call for sustainability is nothing new, but rather simply an expanded version of what Secretary Vilsack apparently had no problem endorsing just five years ago.

The committee also recommended that Americans reduce their intake of red meat and processed meats, and instead eat a diet of mostly plant-based foods, for the sake of their health. Let’s hope the meat lobby does not also undermine this critical advice, and that the rest of the dietary guidelines are based on science and not politics.

Simon is a food lawyer, author, and president of Eat Drink Politics. My Plate, My Planet supported the research for this article.