WASHINGTON, Feb. 25, 2015 – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack assured lawmakers he would be personally involved in writing the government’s new dietary guidelines and indicated he would keep them narrowly focused on nutrition.  

Vilsack stopped short of saying that he would scrap a scientific advisory panel’s proposal that the guidelines include environmental factors, a move that would encourage less consumption of meat.

The chairman of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., asked Vilsack for assurance that the final guidelines, which will be drafted by USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services, would not include the environmental factors.

Vilsack didn’t answer Aderholt directly but said he would “make sure we follow the appropriate approach within the statutory guidelines and directions that we’ve received. I understand we need to color inside the lines and don’t have the luxury of coloring outside the lines.”

At another point, Vilsack said he had to be careful not to make a comment “that binds” Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell but he emphasized that the guidelines would stay within what he said were the statutory limits of what they can address.

The guidelines, which are revised every five years to reflect advancements in scientific knowledge, are used to guide federal nutrition programs, including school meal standards, and to inform consumers. 

Vilsack said the agencies would consider extending the 45-day comment period, scheduled to end April 8, by another 60 days.Yesterday, the North American Meat Institute requested a 75-day extension.

“These recommendations are just that. They are not the guidelines. I know there are scientists who do feel differently about all this,” Vilsack said. 

HHS and USDA will host a public meeting on the recommendations March 24 in Bethesda, Maryland.

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The advisory committee said that that healthier diets -- those heavier in fruits and vegetables and lower in animal proteins -- were associated with “positive environmental outcomes,” which include reduced greenhouse gas emissions “and more favorable land, water, and energy use.”

The committee’s report also said that “sustainable dietary patterns can be achieved through a variety of approaches consistent” with the guidelines and so the government should “offer individuals many options and new opportunities to align with personal and population health and environmental values systems.”

Vilsack said the recommendations pointed to a need for expanded research on beef.