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House Agriculture Hearing Shows Why Experts, not Politicians, Should Guide Government Nutrition Guidelines

Special Interests Seek to Meddle in Dietary Guidelines for Americans, Says CSPI

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“From a public policy standpoint, I think perhaps maybe we’ve gotten too smart for our own good,” Rouzer said. (Not likely, says CSPI.)

The same politicians who determined that pizza is a vegetable for the purposes of the school lunch program are now brandishing butter and bacon as health foods, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Today Members of the House Agriculture Committee quizzed Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell about the forthcoming Dietary Guidelines for Americans. While Members of the Committee could clearly articulate their enthusiasm for certain sectors of the agriculture industry, they could muster less enthusiasm for making sure the guidelines help Americans avoid diet-related health problems.

“Very few Americans would consider calling their Congressman for advice on how to reduce their risk of diabetes, heart disease, or cancer, and today’s hearing neatly illustrated why,” said CSPI President Michael F. Jacobson. “The theater of the absurd orchestrated today by the House Agriculture Committee shows how clueless many Members are about nutrition generally, and about the Dietary Guidelines specifically.”

The thrust of the nutrition advice embodied in the report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is largely unchanged from advice presented in past versions of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which is developed every five years by the Agriculture and HHS departments. Americans should eat more vegetables, fruit, whole grains, seafood, legumes, and nuts and cut back on red and processed meats, sugary foods and drinks, and refined grains, according to the advisory committee. The DGAC also recommended limits on saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars. Yet some House Agriculture Committee members used today’s hearing to question the credibility of the advisory committee’s findings and its members.

Representative David Rouzer (R-NC) questioned the advisory committee’s assertion that good dietary patterns include lower consumption of red meats, and proceeded to describe for the Secretaries how the body metabolizes 2,000 calories of beef versus 2,000 calories from doughnuts. “If you go and have a blood test done, they measure protein-level in your blood, which suggests that obviously protein is a component to a healthy, uh, a healthy lifestyle.”

Some Democrats on the committee were no better versed on the science at issue than the Republicans. Representative David Scott (D-GA) began to question Secretary Vilsack about an unspecified “most recent peer review, that information that is there, and your committee has not even agreed to put it into the final report.” Pressed by Vilsack for details, Scott said, “I’m talking about the scientific study that came out, that gave evidence, that certain things were very important,” before transitioning to a rambling question about low-calorie sweeteners.

“Why do Americans, especially children…fall short of the Dietary Guidelines’ recommended servings of milk and its nine essential nutrients and vitamins,” asked asked Glenn Thompson (R-PA). “And what can we do to remove policies that are hindering milk consumption or promote policies that could enhance milk consumption?” Thompson then went on to wonder out loud about the impact of the Guidelines on commodity markets.

Representative Rodney Davis (R-IL) used much of his time to cheerlead for the restaurant industry, according to CSPI. “I’m kind of disappointed, and I think that others are kind of disappointed, that restaurants seem to be singled out, even though they’re doing their best to offer healthier options to customers.” The sandwich chain Jimmy John’s—some of whose sandwiches contain a whole day’s worth of salt—is headquartered in Davis’ district.

“It’s not as if the report of the 2015 committee departs in a significant way from the past two versions of the Dietary Guidelines,” Jacobson said. “What we are seeing, though, is the coordinated effort of the meat, dairy, soda, restaurant, and packaged-food industries that fear for their bottom lines if people consume less of their products.”

Today’s hearing comes as Politico described the creation of a new coalition aimed at discrediting the process behind the creation of the Guidelines. That campaign started with the funding of an error-laden attack on the Dietary Guidelines advisory committee written by journalist Nina Teicholz and published in the British Medical Journal. The Politico story goes on to describe a meeting at a Georgetown hotel involving Teicholz and representatives of ConAgra, Cargill, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, and others. Former Bush Administration agriculture official and restaurant lobbyist Beth Johnson is coordinating the coalition, according to its web site. 

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Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at]cspinet.org) or Ariana Stone (astone[at]cspinet.org).