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February 22, 2016

For Sale: America's Health

Money from lobbying groups should have no influence on U.S. dietary guidelines

Last month, the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) released their 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These guidelines, known as the “nation's trusted resource for evidence-based nutrition recommendations,” are updated and released every five years in accordance with recent nutritional studies. The guidelines set the standard for nutrition education programs nationwide and inform menu-planning in schools, military facilities, prisons, federal cafeterias, and other government institutions. As such, keeping these guidelines accurate, honest, and unbiased is a top priority. Yet, food and nutrition scientists across the country are calling the new guidelines just the opposite.

When the panel of experts assigned to write the Dietary Guidelines first drafted their suggestions, they included recommendations against the excessive consumption of processed and red meat. Before the guidelines were finalized, over 700 dietary and health care professionals expressed support for recommendations to limit meat and egg consumption and increase vegetable consumption.

These recommendations aligned with a year of increased scientific documentation on the negative health effects of processed and red meat. In October 2015, the World Health Organization released a peer-reviewed study on the link between processed meat consumption and increased risk of colorectal cancer, labeling cured and processed meats as Group 1 carcinogens. Additionally, recent studies have found links between red meat consumption and cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity.

Yet, when the official Dietary Guidelines were finally published, these recommendations against processed or red meat were removed entirely. As Kari Hamerschlag of EcoWatch puts it, “It’s astonishing that the new dietary guidelines, which are supposed to help clarify what people should eat, are actually obscuring science-based recommendations that Americans should significantly cut their red meat intake."

Many nutritionists consider this change a result of political pressure from lobbying organizations such as The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and The National Pork Producers Council. These groups maintain intimate ties with the USDA and directly lobbied against meat-reduction recommendations. The close relationship between these lobbying groups and the USDA greatly impairs any attempt at unbiased nutritional advice. As Marion Nestle, former expert advisor to the USDA and HHS, explains: “We could never say ‘eat less meat’ because USDA wouldn’t allow it.”

It is troubling, if not surprising, that the “nation's trusted resource for evidence-based nutrition recommendations” would put political and economic interests over nutritional accuracy. What is more troubling is that these guidelines directly inform legislation such as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. While it may be possible for some individuals to receive their nutritional advice elsewhere, legislation in general should not be influenced by the economic interests of animal agriculturalists. For the health of those dependent on the USDA Dietary Guidelines, lobbying influence must be eliminated in 2020.

Jacob Elkin is a fourth-year in the College majoring in English

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