WASHINGTON, March 25, 2015 – The final report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) has generated quite a bit of controversy with livestock and meat groups pushing back against including the inclusion of sustainability language that targets red meat consumption in a report which was supposedly focused on nutrition advice.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has even joined the fray, comparing the DGAC process to that of his grandchildren’s coloring efforts. He said the committee can “color outside the lines” and add sustainability language, but he and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell would have to “color inside the lines” and follow the Congressional statute when they write the next version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. That statute says the final Guidelines should “contain nutritional and dietary information and guidelines for the general public . . . based on the preponderance of scientific and medical knowledge current at the time of publication.”

But in three separate interviews with Agri-Pulse, DGAC committee members stood by the science that they say justified their recommendations to shift toward a plant-based diet. Barbara Millen, the chair of the 2015 DGAC, pointed out that all committee members approved the report at their final meeting.  

“It was basically a unanimous vote of my committee to accept not only the individual recommendations, but the report as a whole,” Millen said in an interview with Agri-Pulse.

The argument against the sustainability language in the report has been two-fold: that the committee doesn’t have the jurisdiction over the issue and that the science to support its recommendations just isn’t there.

Wayne Campbell, a professor at Purdue University and member of the DGAC, said the science regarding sustainability is “rapidly emerging,” but he still feels the approach taken by the committee was “fair.”

“There’s nothing really to me that’s antagonistic to anyone who has an appreciation for environmental sustainability and protecting our food supply and protecting our resources for future generations,” Campbell told Agri-Pulse. “I feel very comfortable and very proud that the committee took this on as a new topic that really needs to be discussed and considered in maintaining a healthy society.  

“Health doesn’t necessarily only mean personal health, but it also means the environment and the communities and the resources that we live in and the resources that we utilize and require.”

 Since sustainability was a new topic for this year’s DGAC, there was no precedent to for the committee to follow. Still, Cornell professor and DGAC member Tom Brenna said he wasn’t “backing off what we said; the evidence is there.” Brenna did, however, point out the small number of committee members with ties to a college of agriculture.

“Did we take the perspectives of agriculture into account to the degree that we should’ve? We may not have. I’m not saying we did, I’m not saying we didn’t, I’m saying that we may not have, and I think that the Ag community should object if it thinks that we haven’t,” Brenna said, calling for a measured, scholarly approach that notifies USDA and HHS leadership of any “deficiencies” agriculturists think are in the report.  

Campbell, the only other DGAC member with current academic ties to an institution with a college of agriculture, said he didn’t “buy” that one’s current place of employment had any bearing on the work of the committee. 

“I think it’s a bit narrow to just look at where any individual works or what their current jobs are compared to what their lifelong training is in nutrition and what they bring to the table,” Campbell said. “If scientific or perspective silos exist, then that’s a hindrance to ultimately making sure that we have the best food and the most health readily available and sustainable to the people in the country.” 

Once the report was released in February, the DGAC was officially disbanded, leaving the job of producing the final guidelines to a joint effort of USDA and HHS personnel. Millen said the committee understood “from the very beginning” that they had no role in translating their scientific report into policy. 

“We’ve done the absolute best piece of work possible by the committee, so where it goes from here is really up to the colleagues in both of those departments,” Millen said, declining to speculate on if controversial language would make it through to the final Guidelines.

The report is open to public comment until May 8 after a recently announced 30-day extension. At the conclusion of that period, USDA and HHS officials will finalize and release the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which serve as the basis for federal food policy. Release is expected in late 2015. 

While livestock and meat groups have taken vocal stands against the sustainability language, groups in favor of the change aren’t exactly being quiet. At a meeting to provide oral testimony on the DGAC’s scientific report on Tuesday, those calling for the inclusion of sustainability recommendations to promote what they see as a healthier planet outnumbered the crowd saying the committee stepped outside its scope. A coalition of more than 100 groups also took out full-page ads in major daily news outlets, calling on the secretaries to keep the sustainability concepts firmly rooted in the final Guidelines. For more on that hearing, click here.

For more news, go to www.agri-pulse.com.