USDA file photo

How Agriculture Controls Government Nutrition Guidelines

Meat producers showed dominance over scientists this week, preventing discussion of sustainability.

“My question is related to moderate alcohol intake,” representative Stacey Plaskett said Wednesday morning in a Congressional hearing that was almost momentous. With this question she was, as a congressperson should be, the voice of many.

Plaskett peered over her reading glasses at the de facto arbitrator of such matters, secretary of health and human services Sylvia Burwell. “I noted that the 2015 recommendations confirmed the conclusions from 2010,” Plaskett continued. “Do you think that’s going to remain the same, or will that change? Will the definition of moderation change as well?”

“We’re not going to comment on specifics,” Burwell deflected. “We” referred to secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack, who sat immediately to her right. Before them was a semicircle of congresspeople in elevated chairs who constitute the House committee on agriculture. The ensuing conversation was a polite but charged, deeply consequential battle for influence over what people eat.

Burwell and Vilsack together lead the group that is challenged with converting an expert statement on what constitutes an ideal diet for Americans—written by a panel of 15 academic researchers—into national nutrition guidelines by December. These guidelines are revised and edited every five years. The expert recommendations, published in May, took into account more than 4,000 scientific studies. Burwell emphasized that the experts had not recommended a change in guidelines with regard to alcohol.

“After this hearing, I may be consulting that guideline,” Vilsack interjected dryly. The room erupted with laughter. Were Vilsack to consult that guideline, he would find that he is allowed up to two daily drinks. Were he female, he would be allowed one.

“The FDA would say he meets age requirements,” Burwell added, paradoxically squelching the only moment of levity in Wednesday’s house agriculture committee hearing. It was supposed to be a historic battle over the purview of dietary recommendations. But the evening prior, after months-long debate, the nutrition advocates bowed, wholly and deeply, to agriculture interests. In what they would later refer to as “the blog we put out last night,” Vilsack and Burwellwrote on the USDA website, buried at the bottom of a subtly titled post, that sustainability would not be a consideration in the final 2015 dietary guidelines.

For the first time ever, the expert panel had included in its recommendations some mention of sustainability, acknowledging that questions about human nutrition cannot be divorced from the logistics of how this nutrition is procured.

To take an extreme example, it would be of no use to tell people to eat a diet high in diamonds. It would be counterproductive to extoll the nutritional virtues of human meat. In practical terms, it would be irresponsible not to consider the emissions that accompany large-scale farming of animals (18 to 51 percent of all greenhouse-gas emissions, by various estimates, not to mention intensive water use) when recommending how much animal meat an entire nation of people should ideally consume.

Nutrition experts largely supported the concept. In Science last week, researchers led by Kathleen Merrigan captured the sentiment: “By acknowledging benefits of sustainability, the government would open itself up to greater demand for sustainability investments and would signal to consumers that such foods are preferred.”

Even the most fundamental nutrition science cannot be divorced from discussion of agriculture, many argue. Fish, for example, is more nutritious depending on how it's raised, notes Tom Brenna, professor of human nutrition and chemistry at Cornell University. Wild-caught fish is generally more nutritious than farm-raised fish, just as grass-fed beef is preferable to corn-fed, and it would be remiss not to mention this. Brenna was on the expert advisory committee. And based on a confluence of what is good for human bodies, available to people, and good for the planet (the continued existence of all human bodies), the committee concluded that plant-based diets are preferable to diets high in animal meats.

This did not sit well with many in the business of meat. “Some of the biggest critics of these guidelines are from industries that supply unhealthy foods and special interests with questionable credentials,” noted representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, during Wednesday’s hearing. He mentioned hearing from a former Enron executive who was trying to fund opposition to the proposed recommendations. “I don’t know what Enron knows about dietary guidelines, but there are powerful interests out there trying to challenge credibility, trying to question science.” 

Question science they do, quite literally. South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association President Todd Wilkinson, for one, raised concerns that the recommendations “were written from a political perspective” rather than “based on sound science.” The recommendations “simply are not science-based,” he said this week in a radio interview, and “the science finally is coming around to show that beef and pork are nutritional sources of protein.” If the recommendations continue to be “not science based,” he continued, “we’ll have to go to their funding source and say, you either change this or you’re not going to be able to implement your proposed draft.”

No matter how many times he uses the word science, the cattleman is defining politics. And this is not unique to him. “I’m very excited that the guidelines are going to be science-based and not include issues of sustainability,” representative Vicky Hartzler of Missouri said on Wednesday. Fortunate for Wilkinson, many on the agriculture committee shared his concerns about science. Congressman Collin Peterson was critical of the guidelines yesterday, making the vague accusation that “there seems to be more focus on ideology and marketing food products than on providing clear advice to the general public.”

Most influentially, the same sentiment came from the man seated at the center of the highest point in the hearing room on Wednesday, chairman Mike Conway. He scolded Burwell and Vilsack for even having threatened inclusion of sustainability issues in the dietary recommendations, saying that this “could result in misguided recommendations that could have ill effects on consumer habits and agricultural production.” Indeed.

After an opening prayer in the name of Jesus, Conaway iterated that it is not the goal of his committee to dictate what the recommendations should be, only that they are developed in an objective manner. They should be based on “sound, consistent, and irrefutable science.” The dietary recommendation committee “greatly exceeded its scope,” Conway argued earlier this week in an op-ed at U.S. News and World Report, “by straying from traditional nutritional recommendations. There is concern about whether the committee's recommendations will maintain the scientific integrity necessary to benefit the public.”

Despite all the mention of science, scientific cases were absent from the hearing, in favor of questions like, from representative Filemon Vela of Texas, “How do we make sure that students have access to appealing and nutritious dairy products?” Representative Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania was even more to the point: “What can we do to remove policies that hinder milk consumption, and to promote policies that could enhance milk consumption?” Thompson also serves on the agriculture committee’s subcommittee on nutrition.

“The fact is, because of the rate of nutrition research, as soon as you publish these guidelines, they’re inaccurate,” Thompson argued. “I don’t think these recommendations are effective.”

In this vein, the questions from the agriculture committee were clearly focused on sewing distrust in any dietary recommendations at all. “In the guidelines, are there any disclaimers that studies may not be true?” asked Hartzler. Suggesting that a low-carb diet was more important than the experts deemed it to be, she essentially condemned the nutrition-guideline system as a concept. Others did so more overtly. The idea of science seemed to be on trial. “For my constituents, most of them don’t believe this stuff anymore,” said Peterson, who is the ranking member of the committee. “So that’s why I say, I wonder why we’re doing this?”

“We’re concerned that the public at large has lost faith in the dietary guidelines,” said the newly elected Trent Kelly of Missouri. As a prosecutor, he explained, he didn’t get by with the “preponderance of evidence” standard. He had to prove things beyond a reasonable doubt. “Maybe the preponderance of scientific evidence is not a reasonable standard?”

Vilsack explained that making recommendations based on the preponderance of evidence is a congressional mandate, and that’s how science works.

“Someone was talking to me this weekend, a constituent, who lost weight because they're staying away from fruit,” said representative Doug LaMalfa. “How are people supposed to know what to do when the ideals are changing all the time?”

Burwell explained that it’s important to distinguish between scientific recommendations and what is happening in popular culture.

“Why don’t you just say not to eat over a certain caloric level? Why would there be a category of things not to eat?” asked congressman Mike Rogers of Alabama, where cattle are produced in all 67 counties and responsible for upwards of $500 million in economic impact, according to the Alabama Beef Farmers.

Vilsack assured Rogers that the expert dietary recommendations do include some red meat, but people need some kind of guidelines that lead to nutritional balance. Congressman Bob Gibbs subsequently took up the idea, saying he’d hate to even ask how much the dietary recommendations process costs and suggesting that people who are overweight simply be told to take in fewer calories.

“I think we have gotten too smart for our own good,” explained representative David Rouzer, who also serves as chairman of the livestock and foreign-agriculture subcommittee. He suggested that everyone knows that 2,000 calories of beef is healthier than 2,000 calories of donuts. Nutritionists would disagree over this very interesting conjecture.

Rouzer’s reasoning harkens to the Paleo school of dietary thought, highlighting the absurd extremes to which it gives people license to unlimited meat. But, no, we are not too smart for our own good. With one third of American children overweight, a majority of adults afflicted with prediabetes or diabetes, and a $20-trillion debt into which medical costs are a major factor, fitting nutritional value into a limited-calorie, affordable, accessible, sustainable food system is an enormous task that the United States is far from achieving.

In coming years, politicians and lobbyists discussing sustainable production of nutritious food will be epicenter of the phrase, The science isn’t settled. “Going forward, if we’re going to talk about sustainability, we just need to have a more complete picture,” Janet Riley of the North American Meat Institute, a purveyor of pro-meat information, said in an interview with NPR this week.

But we do not know nothing, it is critical to remember. Indeed, the preponderance of evidence regarding dietary cholesterol has shifted dramatically in recent decades, and the guidelines have adjusted accordingly. Saturated fat has undergone a shift from minimal to moderate intake. Burwell and Vilsack repeatedly emphasized that not so much has changed as many people seem to believe. The fact that fruits, vegetables, and whole grains should fill much of a person’s plate has been consistent. Sugar has always been recommended in very limited quantities. The expert recommendations currently on the table largely uphold the 2010 guidelines, with the additional reason to eat this way: sustainably.

Yet the agriculture committee has essentially said to the nutritionists, your recommendations are nice, but we control what you eat. The science isn’t settled is a colloquialism of no meaning, in that science is a process by which new information is constantly acquired, and that information builds on existing knowledge to help form an understanding of the world that is fluid.

In the political realm, the science isn’t settled is wielded however one wishes, often resulting in injury, as in the cases of pediatric vaccination and climate change. There is almost always evidence that a person could point to in refuting any claim. The science, I might say, is not settled on the existence of dinosaurs, because a significant number of Americans believe that the fossils are a hoax. I have, personally, never seen a dinosaur. You would think one velociraptor would survive, if they ever really existed. They were such cunning predators. All I am saying is that some people have their doubts, and we should respect that, so it’s too soon to call the science on dinosaur existence totally settled.

Everyone agrees that having more data in the realm of nutrition science would be ideal, but this cannot paralyze us from acting to the best of our knowledge. It is dangerous to imply that all interpretations of data and history should be given equal weight.

“Back in my athletic career, I took salt pills,” explained representative Mike Bost. “Now I retain water, so I’m on a low-sodium diet. This sort of thing is very personal. It depends strictly on your DNA, that sort of thing. In my opinion, it’s dangerous to set forth guidelines.”

Burwell explained that various disease states warrant various considerations.

“This is really about well informed opinion,” Vilsack explained. “That’s why we do this every five years, so that maybe five years from now that preponderance changes. It’s an evolving process. Theoretically you could have 317 million different guidelines, because we’re all different people in different circumstances. But within that wide berth, here’s what we know about preventing diabetes and heart disease, and this is what you might consider.”

On Wednesday morning, contemporaneous with the hearing, the presidents of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association published an op-ed that implored, “Keep Politics Out of Dietary Guidelines.” It would be difficult to find someone who would disagree with that, in concept. In practice, it is impossible to keep politics out of nutrition, as long as nutrition is still received via food, and food is still a good that is produced and consumed.

“This is the single most important industry in the world, our agriculture” said congressman David Scott, admonishing Burwell and Vilsack in his closing remarks. “My hope is that you will go back and review a bit.”

“Hopefully the emphasis of this session has been on restoring trust,” Conway said in his closing statement. “Are the guidelines themselves contributing to problems?” he went on. “The guidelines are important, but they’re voluntary for me. I’m going to go have lunch, and I’ll decide for myself.”