Cabinet secretaries assure Congress Dietary Guidelines will stay on track

By Spencer Chase

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WASHINGTON, Oct. 7, 2015 - A House Agriculture Committee hearing Wednesday offered little information about the specifics of the upcoming Dietary Guidelines for Americans, but did provide new information on topics that won't be addressed in the document that will set U.S. food policy for the next five years.

The only witnesses at the hearing were Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, who lead the agencies that will write the final version of the 2015 guidelines and who were closely questioned about how the document, which is revised every five years, is being put together.  

The process to draft the 2015 guidelines began in 2012 with the solicitation of nominations for the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) that is charged with providing recommendations to the Cabinet secretaries. Since then, there has been an unparalleled interest in the development process from a wide range of stakeholders. As the process played out, some began to raise concerns about a number of issues like the role of red meat in a healthy diet and whether the DGAC's scope extended to issues like sustainability and a potential tax on sugar content.

Lets Talk Food

In remarks to the Agriculture Committee, both Burwell and Vilsack agreed.

“The guidelines that we formulate are - and should be - restricted by law to nutritional and dietary information,” Vilsack said in his opening statement. “The advisory committee report . . . is not the guidelines, and sometimes there's confusion about that. The report informs our work, but certainly does not and should not dictate it.”

Burwell mentioned a joint statement she and Vilsack released Tuesday that said the dietary guidelines were not the “appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability.” The DGAC report also made reference to a possible tax on added sugars, which Burwell said is “not an issue that we will address.”

According to the 1990 National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act (NNMRRA), the Dietary Guidelines are to provide “nutritional and dietary information and guidelines . . . based on the preponderance of the scientific and medical knowledge.” Vilsack and Burwell had made similar remarks in a letter to committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, in July, when they said they will remain “within the scope of our mandate.”

“I think there is a good debate and an important debate to take place in the concept of agriculture about sustainability,” Vilsack told reporters after the hearing. “The issue here is not whether you should have that debate, the issue is whether it should be in this context, and we didn't think that the statutory direction allowed us to have the conversation in this context.”

Conaway said he was “tickled to death” that Burwell and Vilsack “laid (the sustainability conversation) to rest.”

“It was important that those issues not cloud the guidelines,” Conaway said after the hearing. “If they did, then it would lessen public acceptance and trust of (the guidelines) because it would seem like there was an agenda attached to them and neither secretary wants that.”


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Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the panel's ranking member, said some people may already be “losing confidence in the guidelines” because of the controversy surrounding their possible content, although he said he didn't believe the “general public (was) paying much attention.”

Georgia Republican Austin Scott said the credibility of the report is “arguably the most important thing” about it. He said it no matter how much time and money were spent on the report, “if we have a credibility gap, we have a problem.”

Some Republican lawmakers delved into the process as a whole, with questions about which studies were relied upon as the recommendations were formulated, the inner operations of the DGAC and how the guidelines are used in federal food policy. While this may be setting the stage for potential changes to the Dietary Guidelines process, Vilsack defended the procedures as necessary and said they should not be weakened.

USDA and HHS are currently reviewing public input on the guidelines after a record 29,000 comments were submitted. It is estimated that about 8,000 of those were unique comments with the rest being form letters distributed by organizations but filed by individuals. In her testimony, Burwell said she expected the 2015 edition of the guidelines “to be completed in December of this year.”

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