WASHINGTON, March 26, 2014 - Beef producers and some members of the agricultural community are expressing concerns that a government-appointed committee of nutrition and health experts is paying too much attention to reduced meat consumption as they debate recommendations for the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).
The first edition of the guidelines, which are supposed to encourage Americans to focus on eating a healthful diet, was released in 1980. They’re revised every five years in a joint effort by the Department of Health and Human Services and USDA, which appoint members of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC).
The panel is charged with reviewing the latest scientific and medical knowledge and then preparing recommendations to the HHS and USDA secretaries for the next edition of the DGA. In the latest edition, the departments shifted from the traditional “food pyramid” to the “MyPlate” guide for food nutrition, putting less emphasis on carbohydrates and more stress on vegetables.
While neither department will comment while the proceedings for the 2015 recommendations are under way, some observers say the 15-member DGAC is focusing too much on issues tangential to nutrition. During its January meeting, the panel heard a presentation from Kate Clancy, a food systems consultant at the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Minnesota, which focused on climate change and the environment. She recommended a “plant-based diet” to contribute to sustainability. “What pattern of eating best contributes to food security and the sustainability of land air and water?” Clancy asked. “The simple answer is a plant-based diet.”
While she noted that a more ecologically-friendly diet does not necessarily have to be meatless, Clancy did target beef production as “of greatest concern” for ecological impact and focused on corn production for cattle feed and the use of fertilizers. She also said “serious problems in beef production” include manure runoff and emissions of methane, “which is a very powerful greenhouse gas.”
Kristina Butts, the executive director of legislative affairs at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), said a committee made up of nutritionists and health professionals should focus on nutrition and health aspects of the guidelines, and not environmental issues. Butts said the guidelines are a priority for the Beef Checkoff, which funded studies on beef nutrition that it submitted to the committee, emphasizing benefits of lean protein in the diet.
“The reason why cattle producers hear so much about dietary guidelines is it becomes the gold standard of nutrition policy,” Butts said.
For example, the latest changes to the National School Lunch Program, which set maximum limits on grains and protein portions, were based on the nutrition guidelines.
That’s why it’s important for the beef industry to be “engaged every step of the way” and make sure beef is included in well-balanced dietary guidelines, Butts said. “We want to make sure that they do have the most recent science and they are making recommendations on the latest peer-reviewed studies,” she added.
Clara Lau, the NCBA’s director of nutrition research, submitted materials to the committee in February to support the argument that consuming 4-5.5 ounces of lean beef daily is good for one’s health. She also said that, over the past 30 years, the beef community has worked to reduce the fat content of the meat.
“Today, over 65 percent of beef cuts sold at retail, including 17 of the 25 most popular cuts, meet the government standards for lean,” Lau said in her comments.
Julie Gunlock, of the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), published articles critical of the DGAC this year. In an interview with Agri-Pulse, she said the latest committee hearings are “veering off” of nutrition, and blurring the lines between environmental issues and nutrition.
“The reason this concerns me is protein from animals offer a really inexpensive way to get vital nutrients,” she said, noting that government nutrition initiatives like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program; and the National School Lunch Program are based on the committee’s recommendations. If the panel diminishes the value of animal protein, “you’re looking at increased food costs for government programs,” Gunlock said.
Instead of telling people to simply reduce meat consumption, the guidelines should recommend healthier cuts of meat, she said. “There are a lot of choices out there,” she said. “The agriculture industry is responding to what people want.”
The committee last met on March 14, in a session that focused on behavioral influences to nutrition and diet.
John Ruff, a former president of the Institute of Food Technologists, told the panel that labeling processed foods as unhealthy is not accurate.
“Studies show that the nutrient contribution of foods is what’s important, not the level of processing,” he said.
Ruff said the committee should avoid telling consumers to avoid a specific type of food or food product. If consumers are told to avoid “x,” they may only choose more of another product that could be just as or more unhealthy, he said.
“Consumers may respond better to positive messaging,” Ruff said, which he said is less prominent than the negative in the current guidelines. “It may be productive to educate consumers on the nutrient contributions of various foods so they can make informed choices based on available food options rather than recommend limiting processed foods in their diets.”
DGAC will meet several more times this year before it writes draft guidelines. HHS and USDA will jointly publish the eighth edition of the DGA in the fall of 2015.
For more information, go to www.agri-pulse.com.