WASHINGTON, Feb. 19, 2015 – The final report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee was published earlier today, and language regarding sustainability and lean meat has livestock and meat groups seeing red.
The report suggests that lean meat could be a part of a healthy diet, but relegated that information to a footnote after suggesting American’s eat less of the product. Language concerning sustainability also makes an appearance in the report, and the DGAC suggests using it as additional rationale to follow the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which dictates federal food and nutrition policy.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) has been keeping an eye on the work of the DGAC since its inception. In a release, NCBA called the report “inconsistent” and says it would lead to “conflicting dietary advice” if published without modification by the secretaries of Agriculture and Health and Human Services. Both NCBA and the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) expressed confusion over the committee’s recommendation of a Mediterranean-style diet, which they say has higher levels of red and processed meats than the current guidelines, while at the same time suggesting a reduction in the consumption of red and processed meats.
In a statement released by NCBA, Texas medical doctor and cattle producer Richard Thorpe called the recommendations leaning toward a plant-based diet “absurd,” saying that the panel of health and nutrition scientists was going outside its expertise by branching into sustainability.
“The American diet is already 70 percent plant based and to further emphasize plant-based diets will continue to have unintended consequences,” Thorpe said. “The Advisory Committee got it wrong in the ‘80s advising a diet high in carbs, and look at what that got us – an obesity problem. My colleagues and I commonly encourage people to include lean beef more often for their health, not less.”
Shalene McNeill, a dietician and nutrition scientist with NCBA, added that “lean meat is red meat,” pointing to government standards that currently recognize more than 30 cuts of beef as lean. She said the nutrition category including meat is “the only category currently consumed within current guidelines, and it is misleading to conclude that a healthy dietary pattern should be lower in red meat.”
Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said he was glad to finally see a report, but he was disappointed to see politics play an apparent role in the report.
“This report is disappointing, as it is clear with some of these recommendations, the non-political, science-based process has gone awry,” Roberts said in a statement. “The Dietary Guidelines are an essential part of combating obesity and improving the diets of all Americans, and it is crucial the Guidelines be free from political influence and be completely based in nutrition science. It appears this has not been the case, and that is troubling news.”
National Pork Producers Council President Howard Hill criticized the report, saying it reflects chic food movements rather than its designated scientific purview.
“It appears the advisory committee was more interested in addressing what’s trendy among foodies than providing science-based advice for the average American’s diet,” Hill said in a statement. “Have we really come to the point where alcohol is okay and meat isn’t”?
NAMI President and CEO Barry Carpenter said he appreciated the DGAC acknowledging the role that lean meat could play in a healthy diet, but said the committee didn’t do enough to promote the health benefits of the product.
“Lean meat’s relegation to a footnote ignores the countless studies and data that the Committee reviewed for the last two years that showed unequivocally that meat and poultry are among the most nutrient dense foods available,” Carpenter said in a release. “Nutrient dense lean meat is a headline, not a footnote.”
Carpenter added that it was “unfortunate” the DGAC treated processed meat products with such generality. He said processed meat is a diverse grouping of products that can include “low-fat, low-sodium, gluten-free, natural, organic, kosher, halal and regular formulations, along with countless flavors and styles.”
Carpenter also likened the panel of health and nutrition experts branching “into the murky waters of sustainability” to “having a dermatologist provide recommendations about cardiac care.” He said if the government is interested in the sustainability of its food system, it should convene the proper experts to study the issue.
“If our government believes Americans should factor sustainability into their choices, guidance should come from a panel of sustainability experts that understands the complexity of the issue and address all segments transportation, construction, energy management and all forms of agriculture,” Carpenter said. “Total sustainability analyses were not considered by the (DGAC), whose recommendations appear to be based on personal opinions or social agendas.”
The protein sector isn’t alone in raising questions about the expanded efforts of the committee. The National Center for Public Policy Research, a self-described “non-partisan, free-market, independent conservative think-tank” released a statement expressing concern of the implications of the DGAC’s sustainability efforts.
“…If the Obama administration allows this theme to become part of the new dietary guidelines to be released later this year, it will cost the public money and not make us any healthier,” said Jeff Stier, a senior fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research. “By favoring foods which activists think have a smaller carbon footprint, the new guidelines will increase the prices you pay for your food. It will also increase the cost to all taxpayers, since the Dietary Guidelines are used to set policy for food stamps (SNAP) and military diets.”
While many following the discussions feel sustainability is outside of the committee’s jurisdiction, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) said the 2015 DGAC is simply following up the request of the 2010 DGAC, which suggested a look at sustainable agriculture and aquaculture practices. In a statement, Doug Boucher with UCS also pointed to the work of the 2005 DGAC to incorporate cost and availability considerations of fruits and vegetables and the 2010 DGAC, which suggested regulations on the marketing of certain foods and beverages to children.
“Sustainability and nutrition go hand in hand. Generally, diets that are better for our health are also better for the planet,” Boucher said. “Science is the basis for the DGAC’s decision to include sustainability in the report. Recently there have been several scientific studies showing our food system and dietary choices have a huge impact on our climate, natural resources, and the future availability and cost of healthy foods. The committee is just adhering to what science tells them.
A 45-day comment period on the DGAC report officially began today, giving stakeholders and the general public until April 8 to provide input before USDA and HHS jointly publish the Dietary Guidelines for Americans later this year. USDA and HHS will also hold a public meeting for oral comments March 24 in Bethesda, Maryland. Roberts, NCBA and NAMI all encouraged the departments to reject the sustainability language and encourage the inclusion of lean meat in a healthy diet.
In public comments, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said the notion that some of these suggestions will make it through to the final recommendations is nothing more than a rumor. At a hearing of the House Agriculture Committee, he said he would be “surprised” if meat recommendations in the 2015 guidelines were “fundamentally different than what they were in previous guidelines.”
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