Food Politics Run Amuk?

Note: I don’t usually post on weekends, but I didn’t feel like waiting until Monday to say this. I’m pretty sure this is the longest post I’ve ever written.

In the Seattle Times column I wrote a few months ago about the proposed 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, “New science on cholesterol, eggs and vegetarian diets,” I alluded to the strange-and-unfortunate interplay between science and politics that rears its ugly head every five years when the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), after reviewing the current state of nutrition and food science, makes their recommendations: 

“Will the DGAC recommendations ultimately find their way into the 2015 Dietary Guidelines? That’s hard to say. The DGAC is a panel of scientific experts in the areas of nutrition, food science, public health, medicine and agriculture. Their 2015 recommendations, which also address sustainable agriculture and the environmental impact of our food choices, have been called courageous. Unfortunately, he USDA and HHS choose which recommendations to include in the actual 2015 Dietary Guidelines. Considering that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has made comments likening the DGAC to a 3-year-old child, it’s anyone’s guess to what degree politics will override the science this time.” 

Unfortunately, the political situation has devolved beyond my expectations, and I can be fairly cynical about these things. Now two appropriations subcommittees of the House of Representatives have decided that they know more about science than the scientists, and what they are demanding in a draft of the 2016 appropriations bill could effectively dismantle the DGAC report and freeze the release of updated Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Marian Neuhouser, PhD, RD, a DGAC committee member and a nutrition epidemiology researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, summarizes the current situation posed by the appropriations bill quite eloquently in an email to me today: 
“One of the points of the DGAC is to ensure that policy is driven by science. We simply cannot have Congress ‘not like the science’ and make policy decision on ‘belief.’ This bill and these decisions will influence the nation’s food and nutrition programs. Not to mention a host of other bad precedents.”
Why? Because in this report, the DGAC identifies a healthy diet as being “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 meats; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains.”

Caving To Industry Interests?

Yes, it appears that the appropriations budget writers are protecting meat.* According to an Agripulse article:  

House appropriators are seeking to ensure the Obama administration doesn’t use environmental factors in writing the federal dietary guidelines for meat consumption

A draft fiscal 2016 appropriations bill for the Agriculture Department and Food and Drug Administration includes a provision that would strictly limit the 2015 recommendations to “matters of diet and nutrient intake” and also require the guidelines to be based on the strongest level of evidence. 

In a move that raised widespread concern in the meat industry, the scientific advisory panel assigned to recommend changes to the current guidelines said that factoring sustainability into the dietary guidelines was “essential to ensure a healthy food supply will be available for future generations.” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee earlier this year the 2015 guidelines would be kept focused narrowly on nutrition

* I would like to state for the record that not only do I eat meat but I have bought a share of a grass fed steer from a local family ranch for years. However, I also eat a diet that is largely plant based, and recognize the validity of the DGAC’s recommendations to reduce meat consumption (they aren’t saying that everyone should stop eating meat. 

House Appropriations: Accepting no Science Beyond 2010

Identical language in both the House Agriculture and Labor and Human Services appropriations bills threatens the future of the Dietary guidelines:

None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to release or implement the final version of the eighth edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, revised pursuant to section 301 of the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act of 1990 (7 U.S.C. 5341), unless the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of Health and Human Services comply with each of the following requirements: 

(1) Each revision to any nutritional or dietary information or guideline contained in the 2010 edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and any new nutritional or dietary information or guideline to be included in the eighth edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans—
       (A) shall be based on scientific evidence that has been rated “Grade I: Strong” by the grading rubric developed by the Nutrition Evidence Library of the Department of Agriculture; and
       (B) shall be limited in scope to only matters of diet and nutrition intake

(2) The Secretaries shall release a preliminary draft of the eighth edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, including a list of the scientific studies and evidence supporting each revised or new nutritional or dietary information or guidelines, for a period of public comment of at least 90 days 

(3) Following the end of the public comment period, the Secretaries shall provide a period for agency review of public comments of at least 60 days 

Why Politicians Should Leave Science to Scientists 

There are some fundamental problems with the appropriations language:

  1. The type of studies that could produce “Grade 1: Strong” evidence is extremely difficult to do in nutrition science research, because of the realities of studying free-living human beings. Mainly, you can’t control every facet of their lifestyle and environment (humans are not lab rats). Even otherwise strong, important studies may have minor flaws that knock their results down to “moderate” status, which is primarily what the 2015 recommendations are based on. It’s also important to consider the overall body of evidence on specific nutritional questions, which the DGAC did, in a very systematic way! 
  2. The language in the appropriations bills would effectively keep the 2010 Dietary Guidelines but prevent the 2015 revisions—even though the 2010 guidelines include plenty of recommendations that are based on moderate, not strong, evidence. It makes no sense to use different standards for existing recommendations than for new recommendations
  3. The language would force the removal of the DGAC’s recommendations on physical activity—because it is not within the scope of “matters of diet and nutrition intake.” This is insane, because good nutrition and physical go hand in hand when it comes to preventing disease and promoting overall good health.  
  4. Similarly, to separate sustainable agriculture from diet and nutrition is also insane. Food does not just magically appear, it has to be grown, and if we want to be able to keep growing it, we should all care about sustainability.
  5. The DGAC report already went through a lengthy public review and comment period. The additional review period suggested in the appropriations bills duplicating what has already been done, and thus is a waste of government resources. (Government waste? I know, go figure.)

Help Stop The Insanity

So what can you do to speak up in support of nutrition science and the DGAC report? If one of your state’s representatives is listed below, you can call or email them with this message:

“I urge you to let the Secretaries of Agriculture and Health do their jobs and consider the recommendations of the expert committee on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans regarding the impact of diet on both human and environmental health.”

If you aren’t a constituent of a representative on the appropriates committee, you can call or email the subcommittee chairmen (click on their name to link to their official contact info).

House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee


  • Robert Aderholt, Alabama, Chairman
  • Kevin Yoder, Kansas
  • Tom Rooney, Florida
  • David Valadao, California, Vice Chair
  • Andy Harris, Maryland
  • David Young, Iowa
  • Steven Palazzo, Mississippi 


  • Sam Farr, California, Ranking Member
  • Rosa DeLauro, Connecticut
  • Sanford Bishop, Jr., Georgia
  • Chellie Pingree, Maine 

House Labor & Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee


  • Tom Cole, Oklahoma, Chairman
  • Mike Simpson, Idaho
  • Steve Womack, Arkansas, Vice Chair
  • Chuck Fleischmann, Tennessee
  • Andy Harris, MD, Maryland
  • Martha Roby, Alabama
  • Charlie Dent, Pennsylvania
  • Scott Rigell, Virginia 


  • Rosa DeLauro, Connecticut, Ranking Member
  • Lucille Roybal-Allard, California
  • Barbara Lee, California
  • Chaka Fattah, Pennsylvania

But Wait, There’s More

I enjoyed Marion Nestle’s May 19 Food Politics post, “The 2015 Dietary Guidelines: The Saga Continues,” especially the last 1/3 or so, which starts thusly:

“Until 2005, the DGACs wrote the actual guidelines with minimal editing from the agencies. That was certainly how it worked in 1995 when I was on that committee. 

“We did the research and wrote guidelines based on that research. The agencies published them pretty much as we wrote them. 

“That changed in 2005 under the Bush II administration.”