Sustainability language supported at Dietary Guidelines public hearing

By Spencer Chase

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WASHINGTON, March 24, 2015 - Agricultural groups are fighting against the inclusion of environmental concerns into the scientific report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, but at a public hearing on the report, supporters of the provisions came out in full force calling for sustainability language to ultimately be included in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Officials from the Department of Health and Human Services and USDA today heard oral testimony from stakeholders in the health, environmental, agricultural, and scientific communities on the contents of the DGAC report published in February. Livestock and meat groups argued that the nutrition committee is overstepping its boundaries by delving into an environmental issue, but environmental groups said the committee had the science to back up a push for more sustainability considerations in the guidelines.

Together we can feed the Bees"

Betsy Booren, vice president of scientific affairs for the North American Meat Institute, said the DGAC shouldn't be suggesting sustainability language “just as it's not appropriate for the person designing a more sustainable light bulb to tell us how to design a more sustainable sandwich.”

To that point, Doug Boucher, director of the Tropical Forests & Climate Initiative for the Union of Concerned Scientists, argued that there is “ample precedent” for the DGAC to branch outside of nutrition-specific topics.

“For many years, indeed for decades DGAC reports have looked at the American diet in broad terms, not just narrowly defined nutritional questions,” Boucher said. “Past DGACs have considered a broad range of issues such as food affordability, access to healthy food, exercise, sedentary lifestyles, screen time, food safety, advertising, land use policy, and marketing to children as well as sustainability.”

Today, a coalition of more than 100 groups also took out full-page ads in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Politico displaying an open letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Sylvia Burwell, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, calling on them to keep the sustainability concepts firmly rooted in the final guidelines.

Although health groups at the hearing didn't take a particular stance on the sustainability debate, they testified that red meat consumption is a factor in obesity and some cancers and supported the report recommendations to reduce consumption of lean meat.

Baltimore physician Mark Rifkin said meat, even lean meat, doesn't do enough to prevent chronic diseases like obesity, which is targeted in the DGAC report.

“The mere fact that lean meats contain fewer objectionable dietary risk factors is not sufficient criteria to call them healthy, it only means that lean meats are the best of a bad selection,” Rifkin said in his testimony. “I refer to lean meats as ‘do nothing food' because they precisely do nothing about the chronic diseases that underlie your scientific report.” 

Alice Bender with the American Institute for Cancer Research noted, “Clear, convincing, and updated evidence shows that diets with high amounts of red and processed meat increase risk for colorectal cancer. By advising Americans to limit red and processed meat, we could have many fewer cases of colorectal cancer in the U.S. every year.”

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All told, those calling for the inclusion of sustainability language and maintaining the report's current recommendations on lean meat outnumbered those calling for the opposite by a slim margin.

In her testimony, Shalene McNeill, a registered dietician with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, called on USDA and HHS to “shelve the (DGAC's) recommendations to eat less meat because they are not science-based and could be harmful to the health of our population.”

“It's time to take a step back and look at the real world application of these recommendations,” McNeill said, adding that Americans have already moderated their red meat servings, and science reinforces that current consumption is within amounts needed to promote good health.

“Rather than cutting back, Americans need to be encouraged to eat lean meat with more vegetables, fruits and whole grains,” she said.

The DGAC report will remain open for public comment until May 8. At the close of the comment period, USDA and HHS will work to jointly publish the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, expected out in late 2015.

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