A committee's recommendations to incorporate environmental factors into federal dietary guidelines have spurred outrage among the nation’s beef, pork and poultry producers, triggering a food fight between industry and green groups.
The recommendations that Americans eat less meat for “the sake of our health and that of the planet” have led to a flood of tens of thousands of public comments to the departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture, most of them applauding the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee for taking environmental sustainability into consideration.
But meat industry groups are blasting the proposal, contending the committee is neither required nor equipped to recommend people eat less meat because it’s better for the planet.
The American Association of Meat Processors’ submitted as its comments a petition signed by 2,494 people opposed to the guidelines.
“In response to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s recent, anemic recommendations to eat lower amounts of red and processed meats we say, unequivocally and without hesitation, ‘Hands off my hot dog,” the petition said.
The guidelines are established every five years by the USDA and HHS, with input from the committee — a federally appointed panel of nutritionists.
Never before has the panel sought to incorporate environmental factors.
And never before have the proposed guidelines caused such a commotion.
The agencies received roughly 30,000 comments on this year’s proposal, as compared to 2,000 received in 2010.
Though not all of the comments have been made public, the majority of responses support the idea of eating more plants and less meat for public health and to maintain a sustainable food supply, said Christiana Wyly, coordinator of the My Plate My Planet Initiative.
“The comments are from diverse groups with different interests, but they do agree that the dietary guidelines is the right place to be addressing our consumption crisis,” she said. "Americans eat double the amount of protein than we can utilize in a day. There's no doubt we are over consuming animal products."
Wyly said a over third of all the comments came directly through the My Plate My Planet Initiative, a campaign launched by a loose coalition of groups supporting the recommendations inclusion of environmental sustainability in the 2015 dietary guidelines.
“We plan to do a more in-depth analysis on where the different public comments are coming from, who is in favor of sustainability, who’s against it and why,” she said.
Though submitted as one comment, over 150 organization, scholars, authors and advocates, signed the My Plate My Planet Initiative’s open letter to USDA Secretary Tom VilsackTom VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE and HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell supporting the proposed guidelines.
In it's recommendation, the advisory committee said a healthy diet is one with less meat and more vegetables, but Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), said there needs to be enough food for people to actually follow that guideline.
“Right now, U.S. farmers are only producing enough vegetables to serve each American 1.6 cups a day — far less than the current dietary recommendations of 2.5 cups a day,” she said.
In separate comments to the administration, OCA is urging HHS and USDA to consider promoting 100 percent grass-fed beef over beef that is factory-farmed.
Baden-Mayer said grazing cattle not only makes for more nutrient dense meat, it benefits the environment by cutting carbon emissions, fertilizing the soil and using less water.
“We’re using our best farm land to grow crops for animas in feed lots,” she said. “It’s completely unsustainable and doesn’t make any sense. The wonderful thing about grazing animals is they can eat food we can’t.”
Organic Consumers Association was part of a larger coalition, organized by Friends of the Earth and the Center for Biological Diversity, that agreed to send the same message in support of a sustainable food source to the administration.
Though the petition carries 150,000 signatures, the agencies counts each groups’ submission of signatures as one comment, but Friends of the Earth created a portal on it’s website allowing people or groups to submit the petition as a separate comment.
“There is a strong body of scientific evidence showing that a diet with less meat and more plant-based foods is better for our health and the health of the planet,” the petition said. “How food is produced also has a big impact on public health and the environment.”
On the other side of the debate, industry groups are lining up against the guidelines.
In it’s comment, the National Pork Producers Council encouraged the agencies to disregard the recommendations regarding sustainability altogether.
“We fully appreciate the importance of this subject — as noted the pork industry has made large investments in building on the sustainability of our product — but this advisory committee had neither the mandate nor breadth of expertise needed to do this topic justice,” the council said in its comment.
The pork producers also said they disagree with the assertion that the majority of Americans are over consuming animal protein.
“In regard to the first context, the report of the 2015 DGAC itself shows that more than 60 percent of the U.S. population is consuming the protein food group at or below the recommended intake levels,” they said in their comments. “Furthermore, it found that low intake of protein is of particular concern in elderly populations.”
The agencies will consider the committee’s report, along with input from other federal agencies and comments from the public as it develops the final 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans due out later this year.
This story was updated on May 19 to clarify that the committee's report contains recommendations to be considered in the development of the dietary guidelines.