Industry sharpens its knives over a federal nutrition panel’s advice.
The meat industry is sharpening its knives over a small federal committee that issued sweeping nutrition advice that essentially told Americans to drop the burger and grab a handful of kale.
The beef and pork associations spent months sweating as the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee worked on developing a large book of nutrition advice that would not only encourage Americans to eat less red meat but single out the livestock industry for contributing to environmental problems.
If adopted by the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services as a part of their every-five-year exercise to educate the public about how to eat healthier, the suggestions could not only influence consumer decisions but also be used to guide federal nutrition policy, including the $16 billion school lunch program.
So, now that the committee has spoken, delivering its 571-page report Thursday, the defenders of meat — among the most powerful lobbyists — are planning to attack the panel’s suggestions on multiple fronts. They will lobby Congress to help influence the federal agencies and form a coalition to request an extension of the report’s comment period from 45 days to 120, said Dave Warner, a spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council.
The industry wants to use the additional time to investigate the studies relied upon by the 14-member panel to draw its conclusions.
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“I think they are off-base when it comes to meat,” Warner said of the report. “We’ll go through it with a fine-tooth comb. We certainly will then talk to lawmakers about it and express to them our concerns. We’ll certainly educate them about the role of meat, especially lean meat, in a healthy diet.”
Meat producers aren’t the only members of the food industry worried about the panel’s report.
The report issued Thursday outlines a dramatic departure in the panel’s approach to improving the nation’s health, a heavier-handed vision than those provided by previous panels for how individuals, government and industry can work in tandem to tackle poor nutrition and environmental concerns. Critics complain it goes too far with too little scientific evidence. Advocates argue they’re trying to repair a nation wrought with crippling health problems.
The panel’s many suggestions reflect the attitude on display at meetings last year: The American diet is in shambles.
The committee says it consulted studies that painted a stark picture of American health, where people develop type 2 diabetes in their youth, and 65 percent of women and 70 percent of men are overweight or obese. Nearly half of added sugars in the American diet come from sweetened beverages, not including milk or fruit juices, and 31 percent come from snacks and sweets.
Some of the major culprits associated with the poor American diet are sodium, saturated fats and added sugars. Translated to real food items, the 2015 DGAC pointed to burgers, sandwiches, tacos, deli meat, cured meat and pizza as likely villains in a poor diet.
“No matter which way you look at it, [the American diet] is so not healthy and really just unsustainable,” said panel member Miriam Nelson, a professor at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, at a July meeting.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 5, 2013, before the House Agricultural Committee hearing to review the state of the rural economy. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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Coffee gets a nod for its cancer- and diabetes-fighting powers in the report. Also, everyone needs more vitamin A, D, E and C, while adolescents and pre-menopausal women need more iron, the panel agreed.
But chief among the panel’s suggestions: Families should reduce their consumption of red and processed meats.
“Higher intake of red and processed meats was identified as detrimental compared to lower intake,” reads the report, which ties their consumption to increased risk of colon cancer and type 2 diabetes. The message is a departure from the 2010 committee’s report, which encouraged Americans to eat meat in moderation, and that has riled the industry.
“The protein foods category, which includes meat, is the only category currently consumed within the current guidelines, and it is misleading to conclude that a healthy dietary pattern should be lower in red meat,” said Shalene McNeill, a dietitian with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
For all the data that links red and processed meats to colon cancer, there also exists evidence to the contrary, said Betsy Booren, vice president of scientific affairs at the North American Meat Institute. Also, until Thursday, outside groups did not have access to the list of studies the committee used when considering their recommendations, she added.
“If that library could be made available sooner … to see what they have … it would help our comments throughout the whole process, not just here at the end,” Booren said.
The panel’s report also charges that the process by which meat products are sourced contributes to dirtying the environment.
“Current evidence shows that the average U.S. diet has a larger environmental impact in terms of increased greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use and energy use,” the report says. “This is because the current U.S. population intake of animal-based foods is higher and plant-based foods are lower.”
The food industry was so worried the advisory panel might take this approach that it lobbied for a preemptive strike: It convinced lawmakers to include language accompanying the fiscal 2015 spending bill that instructs the HHS secretary to ensure any final dietary guidance be based on “sound nutrition science.”
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The attack on red meat is just one part of a dramatic paradigm shift in the nation’s approach to food the panel has proposed. Other recommendations include discouraging the purchase and consumption of sodas and other added-sugar foods out of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, taxing foods containing high levels of sugar and sodium, and considering more plant-based diet options.
The panel also suggests food labeling be retooled with a Nutrition Facts label on packaged foods that emphasizes calories, serving sizes and including overconsumed nutrients such as sodium.
Another food industry headache: The committee suggests that local, state and federal policymakers consider implementing economic and pricing approaches to promote healthier eating.
“[T]axation on higher sugar-and sodium-containing foods may encourage consumers to reduce consumption and revenues generated could support health promotion efforts,” the report reads.
“The committee’s efforts went far beyond its charge and authority, advancing a predetermined agenda rather than one based on the preponderance of scientific evidence,” said Chris Gindlesperger, spokesman for the American Beverage Association. “Instead of following its charge of developing nutrition recommendations based on clear scientific evidence, the committee spent significant time posturing its personal perspectives and advocating for public policies such as taxes and restrictions on foods and beverages.”
Some sectors of the food industry will be pleased with the recommendations made by the panel, however.
The committee advises that three to five cups of coffee per day can lower the risk of type 2 diabetes and liver cancer. The committee stressed that the recommendation pertains to coffee consumption, not any caffeinated beverage or energy drink. The 2010 report issued by the panel did not specify how much coffee Americans should consume, only that it is a source of potassium.
The panel also smiled on milk, recommending that Americans drink more. While there are alternatives to dairy for getting calcium and vitamin D, common replacements have drawbacks, including added sugars and less protein, the committee said during discussions.
But Americans should eat less cheese because of its saturated fat and sodium content, the committee advised, a potentially thorny position to take as cheese is widely promoted as a source of calcium.
Seafood groups got a small win. The 2010 committee began to consider the potential influence of substituting seafood for beef, poultry and pork, but the 2015 panel went the rest of the way, saying seafood could replace some portions of terrestrial meat.
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The federal government can disregard the entire panel’s report. But if history is any indication, it won’t, renowned nutrition expert and 1995 committee member Marion Nestle said. Still, Nestle characterized the new report as astonishing and unprecedented.
“The one thing the Dietary Guidelines have never been allowed to do is say clearly and explicitly to eat less of anything,” she said. “This committee is not burying anything, or obfuscating. This is a dramatic departure. They’re just telling it like it is.”
In her book “Food Politics,” Nestle addressed specifically the debate over what to tell Americans about meat consumption, a conversation that dates back to the forerunner of the current dietary guidelines, the Dietary Goals for the United States, first drafted in early 1977. The meat industry has emerged victorious each time, Nestle said.
“Meat and egg producers called for — and got — additional hearings to express their views” after the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, then chaired by Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.), suggested Americans needed to “reduce their intake of meat, eggs and foods high in fat, butter fat, sugar and salt, and to substitute nonfat milk for whole milk,” wrote Nestle. The McGovern committee ultimately “capitulated,” according to Nestle, and changed its guidance to read: “choose meats, poultry, and fish, which will reduce saturated fat intake.”
Current committee members tussled over the role of meat in the American diet at multiple meetings, especially over whether a recommendation to reduce consumption would fit into a bold plan to confront the nation’s obesity epidemic.
The meat recommendation will face steep opposition, including from Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Roberts told POLITICO he and several committee colleagues agree with the beef industry’s position on red meat consumption. He also said he wants to ensure that all scientific research, including some sponsored by the industry, is considered.
Farmers won’t be “happy with those guidelines,” Roberts said. “It would make a certain segment of agriculture a target. I represent them; I’m their champion.”
But Nelson, who chaired the DGAC’s subcommittee on sustainability, defended the scientific integrity of report.
“It’s important to realize that we looked at both very, very high quality, original research and reports, thousands of reports,” Nelson said. “We’re scientists … our charge was to look at the best evidence and the best science.
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