Feds won’t factor environment into dietary guildeines
Obama administration officials assured House lawmakers during a hearing Wednesday that environmental concerns won’t be factored into the new guidelines for what Americans should and shouldn’t be eating.
While testifying alongside Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell at a House Agriculture Committee hearing, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the law should restrict the guidelines to dietary information only.
Earlier this year, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee — a federally appointed panel of nutritionists created in 1983 to help draft the guidelines —decided for the first time this year to factor in environmental sustainability in its recommendations.
“The [Dietary Guidelines] Advisory Committee’s report is not the guidelines and sometimes there’s confusion about that,” he said. “The report informs our work, but it certainly does not and should not dictate it.”
The agency heads first made the announcement in a joint blog post Tuesday to settle a national food fight that erupted after the federally appointed panel of nutritionists appointed to help the agencies draft the guidelines decided for the first time this year to factor environmental sustainability into its recommendations.
After arguing that the advisory panel had neither the authority nor the expertise to make such a judgment call, members of the meat industry praised the administration’s move Wednesday.
“Cattle farmers and ranchers have made significant investments in nutrition research to understand beef’s role in a healthy diet,” Philip Ellis, president of the national Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said in a statement. “Since the inception of the Dietary Guidelines in 1980 this research has been shared and it’s important for federal policies, like the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, to incorporate the latest nutrition evidence and recognize the role today’s lean beef plays in a healthy diet.”
During Wednesday’s hearing, Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) asked Vilsack if he could assure him that the guidelines are going to be based on sound scientific evidence given the advisory committee’s decision to remove lean meat from its description of a healthy dietary pattern.
The 2010 dietary guidelines, he said recognized lean meat as a nutrient dense food and the scientific data has not changed.
“It’s my understanding – maybe I’m wrong about this – that the report basically described a consistent and direct recognition of the 2010 guidelines,” Vilsack said. “I’d be surprised if our final conclusion was not to include that.”
Rep. David Rouzer (R-N.C.) asked Burwell and Vilsack to remember that not all calories are the same. The human body reacts differently, he said to 2,000 calories of beef than it does to 2,000 calories of doughnuts.
“I recognize science has improved dramatically, but mankind has survived for many thousands of years on red meat and whole milk,” he said.
The North American Meat Institute (NAMI) claims there’s strong evidence to support the nutritional value of eating lean meat, including red and processed meats.
The meat group said 17 of the 25 most popular cuts of beef and seven pork cuts meet the definition of lean by USDA and many lean, lower in saturated fat and lower sodium processed meats can be purchased.
“Moving forward, we hope the agencies will continue to focus on the clear science highlighting the wide variety of nutrition benefits of all meat and poultry products to develop a Dietary Guidelines for Americans best suited to achieve healthy outcomes for all Americans,” NAMI’s CEO Barry Carpenter said in a statement.
Lawmakers also questioned why the administration is still formulating new guidelines every five years when the general public doesn’t appear to be paying attention.
“For those who are, they are very skeptical of the whole process,” Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) said. “For example, we were once told that butter and eggs were bad for you but now I guess they’re OK.”
Peterson said most of his constituents no longer believe in the guidelines.
“You have lost your credibility with a lot of people and they are just flat out ignoring this stuff,” he said. “So that’s why I said I wonder why we are doing this?”
While Secretary Burwell explained that the science, particularly that regarding dietary cholesterol, has evolved over time, Vilsack said he believes the guidelines are merited as long as people understand what they are and what they are not.
“They are not a hard and fast set of rules,” he said. “They’re a set of guidelines, a framework, and they’re not about treating disease they are about preventing it.”
With 1 in every 3 school-aged children overweight or at obesity and 1 in every 3 adults suffering from cardio vascular disease and diabetes, Jim McGovern (D- Mass.) said clearly American can do better.
“This is our attempt to do better,” he said of the dietary guidelines. “And if people aren’t interested in the well-being of our citizenry and all they are interested in is the bottom line, then our nation should be very supportive of what we’re talking about here today because at the end of the day, healthy people mean lower healthcare costs, so we all benefit here.”
In a statement following the hearing, Michael Jacobson, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said he was surprised to see so many lawmakers raising questions about recommendations meant to improve public health.
“There’s a good reason why Americans concerned with their diet and health typically turn to a physician or a nutritionist and not a politician or a lobbyist for Big Food,” he said.
Burwell said HHS and USDA expect to have the guidelines completed in December.
This story was updated at 6:18 p.m.