WASHINGTON, Feb. 8, 2017 - The departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services should be more transparent about how they choose members of the committee that develops the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine said in a report released today.

Overall, the committee found that the process for choosing members for the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee “is thoughtful and works within the bounds of the relevant laws to serve USDA and HHS, as well as the American public. However, the lack of transparency in the current process could lead to the perception that the membership of the DGAC is inequitable, which affects its integrity and trustworthiness. Specifically, the step currently used to ‘conduct a review of nominations and propose a slate of candidates’ was found to be largely subjective and could be improved.”

Congress asked NAS to examine the process by which DGAC members are selected. The DGAC makes recommendations to USDA and HHS, which considers them before issuing the DGA. The guidelines are released every five years and form the basis for the federal government’s nutritional recommendations, embodied in USDA’s MyPlate.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, and the meat industry were critical of the recommendations from the DGAC to USDA and HHS in February 2015. They said the DGAC had unfairly targeted meat consumption and, as Conaway put it in an op-ed in U.S. News & World Report, “greatly exceeded its scope by straying from traditional nutritional recommendations and advising on wider policy issues like sustainability and tax policy.”

The committee’s report “raises concerns that studies were selected or excluded in order to support predetermined conclusions,” Conaway said.

The report said a “healthy dietary pattern is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meat; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains.” But it also said that “lean meats can be a part of a healthy dietary pattern.”

The 2015-2020 guidelines adopted by USDA and HHS in January 2016 largely followed the committee’s advice, urging Americans to cut down on added sugars and adopt diets rich in vegetables and grains. But it also said that a healthy eating pattern includes “a variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), and nuts, seeds, and soy products.”

HHS and USDA also did not include any discussion of environmental sustainability in the guidelines.

The inclusion of lean meats was applauded by the industry. North American Meat Association President and CEO Barry Carpenter, for example, thanked then HHS Secretary Sylvia Matthew Burwell and then-Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for developing “a common-sense policy document.”

Concerns about the DGAC remained, however, leading to the report issued Feb. 3, the first of two on the dietary guidelines. (The second report is scheduled for release this fall.)

The academies’ panel recommended that HHS and USDA “employ an external third party to review and narrow the candidate pool to a list of primary and alternate nominees.” Any organization hired “would have to be without a political, economic, or ideological identity,” the report said.

In addition, the panel called on the secretaries of USDA and HHS to make a list of provisional appointees open for public comment — including short biographies and any known conflicts — for a reasonable period of time prior to appointment. It also said conflicts of interest should be interpreted “broadly by including not only financial sources, but also nonfinancial conflicts of interest (e.g., statements in publications, history of unpaid advisory roles, organizational affiliations).”

In a statement at the beginning of the report, committee chair Robert Russell, professor emeritus of Medicine and Nutrition at Tufts University, said the panel’s work was difficult because “there are scanty data available on how best to judge the effectiveness of a selection process for populating a committee such as the DGAC.” He added that the committee was challenged by its tight deadline to issue a report and by the presence of overlapping issues.