Food Politics Get Heated as Dietary Guidelines Near Approval

Intense lobbying and charges of bias surround the late efforts to influence what goes into the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. A recommendation from an advisory committee to eat less red and processed meat has fueled most of the controversy.

With the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans in final drafts, each day brings news of some twist in their fate:

· The secretaries of HHS and Agriculture now say that the guidelines will not address sustainability, even though members of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), spent lots of time on this issue. Tuesday’s announcement didn’t prevent HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack from being grilled in front of the House Agriculture Committee yesterday.

· Controversy swirls over an article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) by journalist Nina Teicholz, who accused DGAC of overlooking relevant studies and questioned its take on meat and fat; critics have lacerated Teicholz’s article, saying it contains inaccuracies and bias.

· Reporting by Politico Pro outlines the intense lobbying that erupted after DGAC’s February report called for Americans to eat less red and process meat.

· The New York Times reports that while most schools meet nutrition rules in the National School Lunch Program, some still struggle, especially with the limits on salt. The law that overhauled school lunches came after the 2010 guidelines, and there’s a push to roll back some requirements even as the 2015 guidelines take shape. Supporters of the current rules say they are working and a reversal would undermine the quest to control childhood obesity.

With the guidelines not due until the end of the year, the pressure from food interests and nutrition advocates isn’t expected to ease. What was designed to be a process insulated from politics has become more political than ever, and with healthcare spending related to obesity and type 2 diabetes on the rise, doctors are now weighing in.

In a joint editorial in The Hill, which covers the US capital, presidents of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association lashed out at the way Congress has tried to limit what the guidelines say.

Sandra G. Hassink, MD, FAAP, and Steven J. Stack, MD

“At a time when nearly 1 in 3 school-age children and adolescents is overweight or has obesity and more than 1 in 3 American adults suffer from cardiovascular disease and diabetes, science, not politics, should drive the federal government’s efforts to revise the guidelines,” wrote .

DGAC’s report, issued in February 2015, came after 19 months of work by 14 committee members who are considered leaders in their fields. The report’s discussion of consuming less of certain types of meat high in saturated fat has set off a wave of protest, including questions about whether the longtime preference for low-fat over whole milk has done more harm than good.

Burwell and Vilsack, in a joint blog post, said the updated guidelines will keep most recommendations intact. “Fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains and lean meats and other proteins, and limited amounts of saturated fats, added sugars, and sodium remain the building blocks of a healthy lifestyle,” they wrote.

The decision to not weigh in on sustainability is a victory for the meat industry, since the recommendations affecting its products were partly due to concerns over how livestock tax resources, including water. Burwell told the Agriculture Committee that the departments made this decision to leave out sustainability on legal grounds, despite strong support for including it. There were 19,000 comments on sustainability and 97% were positive, she said.

Marion Nestle, a member of DGAC, has weighed in regularly on all the developments on her blog, “Food Politics,” which regularly calls out when studies funded by the food industry that counter either the 2015 recommendations or other areas where nutrition experts largely agree. She’s pointed out the connections among Teicholz, the currently lobbying efforts, and a new political action group, the Nutrition Coalition, which is funded by philanthropists John D. and Laura Arnold. Nestle reports that this coalition seeks to prevent HHS and USDA from issuing the guidelines unless they are reviewed by a separate panel at the National Academy of Sciences.

“Really?” Nestle wrote this week. “Eating fruits and vegetables and not overeating calories requires this level of lobbying? This, too, is about politics. The mind boggles.”