Like death and taxes, here’s another certainty: fiery debates every five years over what should be included in the federal dietary guidelines. We’re also certain to hear the backlash from all sides when their pet issues don’t make it into the final draft—which is where we’re at now.
This isn’t surprising, as the guidelines—which are issued and updated jointly by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services—“provide authoritative advice about consuming fewer calories, making informed food choices, and being physically active to attain and maintain a healthy weight, reduce risk of chronic disease, and promote overall health.”
That definition will not expand to include sustainability in the next set of guidelines, USDA and HHS officials said this week, setting off a firestorm of criticism from environmentalists.
“We will remain within the scope of our mandate ... which is to provide nutritional and dietary information,” wrote U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Sylvia Burwell, secretary of Health and Human Services.
In February, an advisory panel of nutritionists recommended that the new guidelines include a reduction in red meat intake not only because of the health benefits of a plant-based diet, but the environmental benefits as well. Several academic, nutrition and animal welfare groups co-authored a letter to the secretaries supporting the recommendation.
“If Secretary Vilsack ignores the sustainability recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee after their months-long deliberation, he will once again side with the powerful economic interests of the industrial meat companies and not with the health and well-being of all Americans,” letter signer Bob Martin of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future told NPR in February.
Indeed, the industrial meat lobby did take issue with the addition of language that it deemed to be unfairly targeting animal protein, adding that sustainability is “outside of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee's scope and expertise,” according to the Meat Institute’s Barry Carpenter.
Vilsack and Burwell also said a recommendation to levy a tax on sugary foods and beverages—a policy recommendation made famous by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg—is outside the scope of the agencies’ role.
Noted nutrition and food politics professor Marion Nestle blasted both omissions, pointing out that previous guidelines went beyond the scope of “nutrition and diet,” and writing that Congressional intent for the guidelines is to provide a broad health-based agenda.
“This is about politics, not science,” she concluded.
Photo credit: Paul Delmont