WASHINGTON, Jan. 15, 2015 - Much has been made of the deliberations of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), but officials say observers shouldn’t be so quick to jump to conclusions.
Many within the agricultural community say that, judging by the committee’s actions during its seven meeting, they are concerned that sustainability issues may improperly be included in the final Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Updated every five years, the Guidelines are the final outcome published by USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services, based on the DGAC’s research report.
At the December DGAC meeting, the committee also removed lean meat from a component of a healthy diet, infuriating groups like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and the North American Meat Institute (NAMI). In a release, NAMI President and CEO Barry Carpenter called the removal of lean meat “stunning,” “arbitrary,” and “capricious.”
The DGAC’s actions have also drawn the ire of many on Capitol Hill. A policy rider in the spending bill passed by Congress at the end of last year’s lame duck session instructed the administration not to use environmental factors in the Guidelines. On call with reporters this week, Sen. Chuck Grassley said the committee should be focusing on nutrition, not nature.
“The excuse to use the environment as an issue for what you should eat or not eat is stupid,” the Iowa Republican said. “There’s dietary reasons for what you should eat or not eat, but not environmental reasons.
“It’s against animal agriculture, and it’s really against consumer choice. It’s using the strong arm of the government through the nutrition programs to hurt animal agriculture.”
While the very public nature of DGAC meetings make it hard to dispute any actions or statements, administration officials say the process has a long ways to go before a final report is released, which is expected in late 2015.
First, the DGAC must complete and submit its report, which administration officials expect to receive before the DGAC charter expires Feb. 19. That report serves as a research tool that USDA and HHS will use to form a final report and the Dietary Guidelines. The Guidelines serve as the basis for federal food and nutrition policy for the next five years. The most recent edition of the Guidelines included the MyPlate diagram and corresponding recommendations to increase fruit and vegetable intake.
Critics of the DGAC are concerned that that environmental language and efforts to remove lean meat from a healthy diet pattern that were evident in the committee’s discussions will be carried over in the new Guidelines. Government officials say it’s just too early to tell.
“(W)hile it is premature to speculate on the specific recommendations that will or will not be included in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015, the purpose of the Dietary Guidelines remains intact,” an HHS spokesperson said in an email to Agri-Pulse. The spokesperson added that the Guidelines are meant to “provide information and advice to help Americans choose a healthy eating pattern.”
Once USDA and HHS officials receive the DGAC’s report, the spokesperson said it will have to be formatted “to ensure web-based accessibility” and will be published on DietaryGuidelines.gov. Following a public comment period, USDA and HHS – which has the administrative lead on the 2015 Guidelines - will use the report and the received comments to formulate the 2015 Guidelines. If past DGAC reports are any indication, the report might be 100 or more pages, but the Guidelines are formatted into shorter points that are easier to digest.
There has been no firm communication from either agency about what will or won’t be in the report. This means that the speculation in media and organizational reports could very well prove to be overreactions to a very public process. In the meantime, the administration is in a holding pattern of sorts until it receives the DGAC’s report.
“HHS and USDA policy officials will meet to discuss the (DGAC’s) scientific recommendations after its final scientific report has been submitted to HHS and USDA secretaries,” an HHS spokesperson said. As mandated by Congress in the so-called Data Quality Act, the spokesperson added federal policy “must be based on high quality scientific data and, as such, the forthcoming Dietary Guidelines for Americans will continue to provide the strongest science available for informing nutrition policy.”
Grassley, however, says Congress may have to step in after the administration bureaucrats have their say, considering the importance of the Guidelines, which will serve as the basis for federal nutrition programs for the next five years.
“We’ll have a chance to look at all this stuff when we have oversight hearings and the reauthorization of the nutrition program,” Grassley said. He said the Guidelines have “set the tone” for federal food policy for three decades, and that Congress shouldn’t let the 2015 guidelines - assuming they contain changes in regards to lean meat and environmental concerns - become precedent-setting.
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