Feds Decide That Sustainability and Nutrition Don't Mix
The revised federal nutrition guidelines won’t be released until the end of the year, but we already know one thing that won’t be included in the recommendations that inform public health policy and programs across the country: sustainability.
When the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee released its report in February that informs the revision process, the inclusion of environmental concerns came as a shock to those who follow federal food policy—and turned the wonky process, which happens every five years, into national news. While they aren't an everyday tool for eating right, like MyPlate, the guidelines provide a nutritional basis for everything from food assistance programs to school-lunch standards and are followed closely by private food companies as well. "A lot of money rides on this advice," Marion Nestle, professor of food studies and nutrition at New York University, told TakePart. While environmentalists and some public health experts cheered the new tack the report took, the food companies balked.
But the livestock industry won't have to contend with a federal endorsement of widespread vegetarianism or anything close to it. On Wednesday, the heads of the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Humans Services issued a joint statement that said environmental issues won't factor into the new standards.
In revising the guidelines, the two agencies “will remain within the scope of our mandate,” said Tom Vilsack and Sylvia Burwell, the respective heads of USDA and HHS. “Which is to provide ‘nutritional and dietary information and guidelines’…‘based on the preponderance of the scientific and medical knowledge,’ ” they added, quoting the 1990 National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act.
Michele Simon, a public health lawyer who works on food issues, has spent a fair amount of time reading the law and came away with a different reading of the mandate it gives HHS and USDA. In a legal analysis published Monday by a coalition of environmental groups, she argued that “the preponderance of scientific evidence” that the law says the guidelines should be based on “tell us that food production impacts our diet, and thus should be considered as part of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”
But if there’s a legal basis for including sustainability in the revised guidelines, there is no legal means of forcing the point. While the law would allow for sustainability to be included, “it’s also within their discretion to NOT include it,” Simon wrote in an email Wednesday, “just like they’ve ignored science in the past, and will again, regarding the health reasons for eating less meat and more plants.” The DGAC report shows how the preponderance of scientific evidence shows that diets lower in meat are both healthier and better for the environment.
The guidelines, she also noted, are not legally binding; if they were, “we would have more legal options.”
Previous revisions of the guidelines have expanded beyond "eat this, not that" guidelines, as Simon noted in her legal analysis and in an op-ed published Wednesday by The Hill. Since 2000, both food safety and physical activity, which were first included in the dietary guidelines that year, have been squarely placed in the larger conversation about diet and nutrition in the United States.
But those issues, Simons said, “were not ‘controversial’ in that there was no threat” to a powerful business and lobby like the livestock industry. As such, critics see the decision to not include sustainability in the guidelines as a victory for the meat industry and other agriculture interests.
In addition to meat, the food industry has pushed back against the DGAC recommendations to limit soda intake, and how the report handles sugar and fat. "Food lobbying groups have scored wins in Congress," Nestle said, such as when pizza was declared a vegetable, "so every food group thinks that if it complains loudly enough, Congress will respond. So far, it looks like they are right."
Despite the huge amount of interest the DGAC report has garnered since it was released, the joint statement from Vilsack and Burwell suggests that little will change when the new standards are published later this year.
The updated guidelines “will be similar in many key respects to those of past years,” the statement reads. “Fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains and lean meats and other proteins, and limited amounts of saturated fats, added sugars and sodium remain the building blocks of a healthy lifestyle.”