Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services named the members of the new Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. This important panel helps formulate the government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, an influential source of nutritional advice relied upon by millions. The guidelines also form the basis for all federal food programs, including school lunches.
Controversy over conflicts of interest often bedevils government committees. But in this case, the conflicts are so clear and so numerous that the integrity of the panel is profoundly compromised. More than half the committee’s 13 members have extensive ties to the meat, dairy, sugar, processed food, egg and supplement industries.
Perhaps the most outrageous appointment is that of Fergus M. Clydesdale, who has been both a stockholder and consultant for several large food companies. Clydesdale also works closely with several food-industry-funded organizations, including the American Council on Science and Health, which is notorious for putting corporate interests before public health.
Other committee members have financial connections to Procter & Gamble, the Cattleman’s Beef Association, the National Dairy Board, M&M Mars, the American Egg Board and other large corporations and interest groups.
Including scientists with financial ties to industry among the federal government’s most trusted advisers on nutrition policy is not much different from letting food companies themselves write the guidelines.
The extent of these conflicts is especially astonishing in light of the panel’s recent history. When the Dietary Guidelines were last revised in 2000, the government was successfully sued for not fully disclosing the financial ties of members of the advisory committee. That lawsuit, which was brought by our organization, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, highlighted the extent of the government’s pro-industry bias. Many observers expected the health and agriculture departments to be more careful this time around. Unfortunately, the lesson didn’t take.
Ironically, these controversial appointments come as the advisory panel confronts a daunting nutritional challenge. New data indicates that bad eating habits exact a terrible toll: Two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight, childhood obesity rates are skyrocketing, and diet-related diseases such as diabetes are reaching epidemic proportions.
To combat this looming disaster, federal nutrition policy must encourage people to eat a more healthful diet. There’s widespread agreement about what that means: Organizations such as ours, the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association suggest plant-based meals rich in fruits and vegetables and low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, sugars, and salt. Processed foods should be limited, and consumption of meat and dairy products should be reduced.
Such recommendations could save countless lives. But they would also take a huge bite out of the profits at some of the nation’s biggest food companies — the very corporations that have bestowed grants, awards and other goodies on so many members of the advisory board.
Given that clear conflict, how can we trust this committee to make the right choices? S
Amy Joy Lanou is nutrition director of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, based in Washington, D.C. Patrick Sullivan is a staff writer for the committee.
This essay first appeared in the online journal Tom Paine.
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