By Agustina Saenz
September 1, 2016 at 5:00 am ET
As the U.S. Department of Agriculture prepares to bail out the egg and cheese industries — at a cost of $31 million — can a National Academy of Medicine committee really succeed in removing conflict of interest from the next Dietary Guidelines for Americans and federal nutrition assistance programs?
The 13-member committee — with its own food industry influence — will meet over 18 months beginning Sept. 1 to review the legitimacy of the Dietary Guidelines process. Why? A bipartisan initiative decided that the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee procedures lacked transparency, were biased, and were not based on the latest research. Agreed.
The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee makes recommendations that influence the final Dietary Guidelines, which — in theory — should influence federal nutrition programs such as the National School Lunch Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The last committee released its recommendations report in February 2015, almost a year before the final 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans were published this January.
During that year, industry and science battled over what would be included in the final Dietary Guidelines. In March 2015, the public had the opportunity to weigh in on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s recommendations.
The meat and dairy industry spread misinformation: The American Meat Science Association said that “red meat and processed meats should be a focus to countermeasure diseases.” Fact: Red and processed meats cause disease. A speaker with ties to the American Egg Board said that “Americans don’t need more plants.” Fact: Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables.
They argued that obesity and chronic diseases rates are increasing because the Dietary Guidelines are not giving the best recommendations. But the reality is that the Dietary Guidelines — which recommend eating more fruits and vegetables and cutting down on meat and fatty dairy products — are not being incorporated into federal food policy.
The U.S. government is actually promoting the consumption of foods that the Dietary Guidelines recommend cutting back on, like cheese, which is a leading source of saturated fat in the American diet.
The Guidelines say that “strategies to increase vegetable intake include choosing more vegetables — from all subgroups — in place of foods high in calories, saturated fats, or sodium such as some meats, poultry, cheeses, and snack foods.”
But just last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it is bailing out the dairy industry by spending $20 million to buy 11 million pounds of surplus cheese that it will distribute to nutrition assistance programs, including the 40 million Americans who rely on SNAP and the 31 million children who rely on the National School Lunch Program for nutritious meals. It’s doing the same thing with eggs.
Cheese and eggs are loaded with cholesterol, which the Dietary Guidelines say that “individuals should eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible of while consuming a healthy eating pattern.”
This recommendation remains in the Guidelines, in part, because Physicians Committee president Neal Barnard, M.D., said in that March 2015 meeting that “for all its good work, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee made a scientific error on cholesterol and to carry this glaring mistake into the Guidelines is not scientifically defensible.”
What was the error? The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee said that “cholesterol is not a nutrient of concern for overconsumption.” The recommendation was based on the egg industry’s influence over the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. But the Physicians Committee is still suing to understand how the food industry influenced the committee.
When the National Academy of Medicine committee meets, will it succeed in removing conflicts of interest like this? Hard to say. The chair, Robert M. Russell, M.D., has ties to Nestlé and has served as president of the American Society for Nutrition, which has repeatedly been accused of having too many ties to industry. Jamy Ard, M.D., is the medical director of Optifast, a food company owned by Nestlé. And Barbara O. Schneeman, Ph.D., sits on the board of Monsanto.
Although these members declared conflicts of interest, I had to search the internet for specifics. Can we expect a fair process from a committee that is not fully transparent about its own conflicts of interest?
I hope so. I hope the National Academy of Medicine fosters a Dietary Guidelines process free of industry influence that strengthens warnings against meat and dairy products and promotes disease-fighting plant-based diets.
But most of all, I hope that our federal nutrition policies, including the National School Lunch Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, start to align with the Dietary Guidelines recommendations. Only then will we be able to evaluate the efficacy and accuracy of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Agustina Saenz, M.D., M.P.H., is the director of nutrition education and policy for the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
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