WASHINGTON, July 23, 2014 – Why is the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) – charged with updating nutrition guidelines - looking into the issue of sustainability in food production? That a question more farmers and food companies would like answered.

The committee is a joint effort of USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services charged with coming up with recommendations for the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Government guidelines for more or less of certain food components can mean big differences in consumption patterns, and profit margins for food companies.

The report in question was presented by Miriam Nelson, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University and the chair of the panel’s subcommittee on Food Sustainability and Safety. In a power-point presentation that was webcast, Nelson highlighted research that showed a correlation between increased consumption of animal-based foods and a greater impact on the environment.

Kristina Butts, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association executive director for legislative affairs, said the discussion showed a lack of common ground on the issue.

“It seems that the subcommittee didn’t have a consensus about final thoughts on sustainability, but that doesn’t mean there’s not continued conversations or dialogue happening on that topic,” Butts said in an interview with Agri-Pulse. “This is an area where NCBA’s membership feels very strongly that this advisory committee doesn’t have the expertise and, quite frankly, doesn’t have the statutory authority to start drifting into other topics outside of nutrition and health.”

Other trade organizations also expressed concern. Tom Super with the National Chicken Council (NCC) said the very issue of sustainability is difficult to grasp, and a group of nutritionists and epidemiologists may not be the most qualified to define sustainably raised products.

“Sustainability is a complex issue that continues to be discussed at the highest level across the food industry, by various experts, and in other forums,” Super said. “Our members encompass sustainability as part of their business models and have a great story to tell, but we do not believe that the DGAC is the proper forum for this discussion.”

The committee displayed a lack of consensus on what sustainability is and how it could be quantified, but never wavered on the importance of sustainability in the diet, noting that environmental awareness provided greater incentive to follow the committee’s nutrition guidelines.

“We’re not doing the farm bill. We felt we needed to stick with the scope that’s related to what we can in terms of dietary guidance and sustainability,” Nelson said during the meeting, adding her opinion that “current American intake” is unhealthy and not sustainable.

Butts disagreed with that notion, pointing out that meat is the only nutritional category being consumed at levels suggested by the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. When it comes to a well-balanced diet, Butts said beef producers are in favor of promoting the inclusion of more fruits and vegetables in Americans’ diets.

“If you’re talking about how to get Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables, let’s have that conversation and let’s have it very openly,” Butts said. “But making statements about shifting your current diet to a plant-based diet because we’re eating too much protein would actually be inaccurate.”

Before the DGAC reconvenes in September, Nelson plans to complete studies on fish sustainability in relation to dietary guidance and identify research gaps. DGAC chair Barbara Millen encouraged panel members to use a “strong, evidence-based, innovative approach” in their subcommittee work.

The DGAC hopes to present guidelines to the USDA and HHS secretaries by early 2015 and the government plans to issue the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans in the fall of that year.


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