Submission: Who’s Really Controlling Our Dietary Guidelines?

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The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are updated every five years by the U.S. government. In the most recent guidelines, released in January, the Obama administration removed a crucial piece of information. These guidelines are meant to utilize scientific evidence to provide Americans with sound advice on healthy food options; however, the influence of corporate interests has altered the new guidelines and ultimately watered them down.

The most blatant omission from the new guidelines is the recommendation to limit meat intake. Despite initial intentions to include information on the negative health impacts of processed and red meats, the United States Food and Drug Administration and Human Health Services, which are in charge of publishing the guidelines, surrendered to lobbying pressure by the meat industry and Big Ag by removing this essential section.

Consumption of processed and red meat has long been understood to be linked to health issues such as heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. And just in October of 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an agency of the World Health Organization (WHO), issued a report that links the consumption of these meats with cancer—especially colorectal and stomach cancer. Processed meats, which include hot dogs, ham, and flavored meats, were categorized as carcinogenic, while red meats were categorized as a probable carcinogen. The WHO even stated that eating just 50 grams of processed meats per day (i.e., four slices of bacon or one hot dog) increases one’s risk of developing these cancers by 18 percent.

Although there are a few indirect recommendations to limit meat intake, the guidelines do not explicitly recommend a limit, and in fact mention that the consumption of red meat can be part of a “healthy eating pattern.” With such overwhelming evidence to the contrary, how can the USDA and HHS get away with publishing this advice?

Although the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee bases its recommendations off of thousands of pages of published research, the USDA and HHS often alter these recommendations when the meat industry pressures them to.

The meat industry is an extremely powerful political force and has the power to influence these guidelines through intense lobbying. In fact, the meat industry spent 4.4 million dollars lobbying against the dietary guidelines just in 2015. The USDA relies on major food producers and manufacturers for money contributions, so it often surrenders to the pressure of these producers by altering public statements, hiding facts, and providing null nutritional advice. As Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, rightly remarks, “The current system opens the guidelines up to lobbying and manipulation of data.”

Despite offering an unclear message with advice based on lobbying pressure, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans will widely be referred to for the next five years for school lunch programs, public nutrition programs, and food labels. Hard science is largely ignored in the new guidelines and advice to avoid consumption of carcinogenic meats is omitted. Although the guidelines are meant to benefit the American public, it’s clear that corporate interests are the winners here. The government has chosen to put industry interests above your health, but you don’t have to listen; you can still make the decision to benefit your health by leaving meat off your plate.

Roxy Kushner
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology major
Cowell College