Tuesday, October 06, 2015

USDA and DHHS decide not to include sustainability in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell issued a joint statement this afternoon, which appears to say that sustainability issues will not be considered in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).
In terms of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs), we will remain within the scope of our mandate in the 1990 National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act (NNMRRA), which is to provide “nutritional and dietary information and guidelines”… “based on the preponderance of the scientific and medical knowledge.” The final 2015 Guidelines are still being drafted, but because this is a matter of scope, we do not believe that the 2015 DGAs are the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability.
The announcement follows months of public debate after the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee this year included some discussion of environmental sustainability in its report, which provides the scientific basis for the guidelines that will be released later this year by USDA and DHHS.

As noted on Thursday, several colleagues and I recently had published a commentary in the journal Science, arguing that sustainability issues are just as much relevant to dietary guidance as physical activity or food security, both of which are widely accepted as in scope.

Even in today's announcement, the citation from the 1990 legislative authority broadly defines the scope as "nutritional and dietary information" (not merely nutritional information alone) based on "the proponderance of scientific and medical knowledge" (not merely medical knowledge alone). The decision makes sense primarily as a response to intense political pressure. As a result of today's decision, USDA and DHHS will enjoy some shelter from criticism in Congress this month.

The scientific community and the public will continue to discuss food choices and the environment together in the same breath. It is unavoidable to do so. The main impact of today's announcement is to make the 2015 DGA less relevant, uselessly silent on some of the most important food guidance questions of our time. The public will turn elsewhere for authoritative information on sustainability and diet.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Science commentary: It makes sense to include sustainability in dietary guidelines

In a commentary today for the journal Science, several colleagues and I explain why we think it is fine to include considerations of environmental sustainability within the scope of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).
The challenge is how to produce the most healthful foods in a way that sustains employment in the agricultural sector and minimizes adverse impacts on the environment. All major constituencies concerned with food security and health must wrestle with sustainability and dietary choices together. It is right and proper for the DGA process to lead the way.
The commentary, which may be gated (sigh), grew out of a fall 2014 workshop initiated by the first author, Kathleen Merrigan, who was until 2013 the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, and who now leads the sustainability program at George Washington University. Other authors include Tim Griffin, myself, Kim Robien, Jeanne Goldberg, and William Dietz. This issue also had been the focus of an earlier workshop, to which I contributed, for the Food Forum of the Institute of Medicine in 2013.

In an era of global climate change, the issue of sustainability is so important to the food system as a whole that policy-makers and the general public will inevitably find themselves considering environmental issues as part of almost any discussion of food choices. See for example the recent article in Nature by David Tilman and Michael Clark.

There is no way for the U.S. government to avoid having people talk about sustainability and dietary guidance jointly. That matter is already settled. The only question on the table is whether we will all need to struggle to compile multiple authoritative sources on these issues or instead whether -- as seems more sensible -- both issues will be addressed together in the same coherent federal guidance document.

Other countries include sustainability issues in their dietary guidance. For example, dietary guidelines in Brazil and the Netherlands take a comprehensive approach.

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), whose report provides the scientific basis for the upcoming release of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, already discusses sustainability in a sober and moderate way. It seems wise for the actual Dietary Guidelines to do likewise.

Unfortunately, some in Congress have taken steps to instruct federal agencies to limit the scope of the guidelines to "diet and nutrient intake" only. It would be absurd to limit guidelines to just those two topics. Along with preventing discussion of sustainability, the proposed language from Congress would prevent the guidelines from discussing physical activity. Yet, we all recognize that food and physical activity should be discussed together.

It is already within the mandate of the Dietary Guidelines to consider food security -- access by all people at all times to enough food. Far from being a loose cannon, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recognized environmental sustainability as sufficiently important to food security to deserve at least a brief and restrained mention. It would be silly to reverse that persuasive and sensible approach.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

British Medical Journal (BMJ) gives low-carb journalist Nina Teicholz an outlet to blast the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC)

The British Medical Journal (BMJ) this week published an article/editorial by journalist Nina Teicholz blasting the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) for recommending diets with less saturated fat, red meat, and salt. In it, Teicholz offers a powerful stew of selective scientific evidence and blistering attacks on the integrity of opponents.

Teicholz is a journalist and author of The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet. Her disclosure statement in the BMJ mentions honorariums for medical, restaurant, financial, meat, and dairy industries. She slams DGAC committee members for conflicts of interest with vegetable oil producers and, in one case, some funding from the California Walnut Commission. This tit-for-tat focus on conflicts might come out in Teicholz' favor ... if we lived in some upside-down universe where walnut growers and vegetable oil manufacturers controlled U.S. agriculture policy and the meat and dairy industries were oppressed and powerless minions.

Teicholz is most upset with the DGAC for "not only deleting meat from the list of foods recommended as part of its healthy diets, but also actively counseling reductions in 'red and processed meats.'" But the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee never has and never would recommend deleting meat. I have no idea what passage of the report she thinks recommended deleting meat.

As for eating less meat, the context for the DGAC recommendation is that per capita annual meat consumption in the United States is a remarkable 120 kg, far higher than the average amounts consumed globally (42 kg) or in other rich countries that have lower rates of chronic disease than we do, such as Japan (46 kg). The United States has plenty of room to improve healthy diets without eating as much meat as we currently do.

Teicholz never mentions why leading health authorities recommend moderating our consumption of red meat and processed meat in particular. For example, the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) advises less processed meat because of concern about colon cancer. Teicholz mentions "heart disease" 11 times, but ignores cancer (the two occurrences of the word "cancer" are later off-hand dismissals of concerns about saturated fat). It's not that Teicholz disputes the evidence, she simply never mentions it.

Teicholz offers rich and sanctimonious criticism of the DGAC for sometimes using its own best summary of the evidence without the formality of a systematic review. A systematic review is a process through which a research team with relevant expertise carefully defines the diet-health relationship under study, prepares a written protocol in advance for choosing eligible research articles, and systematically classifies and reports the results. The striking thing about the DGAC is that -- more than with any other such work that I know -- it is usually easy to trace the committee's reasoning from its conclusions, back to systematic reviews in the government's free online Nutrition Evidence Library (NEL) and other authoritative research associations, such as the American Heart Association (AHA). But, wow, does Teicholz really hate the AHA, describing the respected association as mere pawns of, once again, the vegetable oil industry.

The contrast between DGAC and Teicholz in transparency of selecting and reporting evidence is striking. A systematic review is precisely the opposite of what Teicholz does in her own work, as a journalist deep-diving willy-nilly into idiosyncratically selected sub-sections of a vast and complex literature, choosing those studies that support her argument and agree with the conclusions of her best-selling book.

Others have already prepared a line-by-line evisceration of the Teicholz article, and committee members submitted a response to the BMJ online site. Here, more broadly, for your comparison with Teicholz' article in BMJ, consider the reasonableness of the approach and conclusions used by the DGAC.
The overall body of evidence examined by the 2015 DGAC identifies that a healthy dietary pattern is 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 meat; and low in sugar sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains.
That won't sell so many books, but it makes sense to me. I hope it earns a more fair reading from you than it has from Teicholz.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Vanity beverage name: "Just Sugar Water"

Let's have a little fun with a major beverage manufacturer's website that allows you to order soda bottles with vanity names printed on them.

Update (11:42am): Twitter friends point out that ... of course ... others have already been experimenting with the limits of the words the website will accept. And here is CSPI's contribution.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

U.S. household food insecurity remained high in 2014

The U.S. Department of Agriculture today reported that the rate of household food insecurity in 2014 was 14%, still far higher than historical averages and a sign that robust economic recovery has not yet reached low-income Americans.

For Politico's Agenda today, I reflected on the role of poverty reduction -- and not just food provision -- as a solution to household food insecurity. Here is the conclusion.
It may be that anti-hunger groups and political leaders focus on food because they’ve lost confidence that the United States really can make progress against the deeper problem of poverty. But this is doubly wrong. Food alone cannot eliminate the spectrum of food-related worries and shortfalls—and reducing poverty is not really beyond the capacity of the American people, their government, and their economy.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

A boring post with quiet opinions about GMOs

Here is a forlorn too-boring-to-notice list of quiet positions on recent Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) controversies.

1. I never say "GMOs are safe."

Not all GMO traits are safe. The most widely-used GMO trait in American agriculture is the "Roundup Ready" or "glyphosate-resistance" trait, which allows farmers to apply the pesticide glyphosate to corn and soybeans. This pesticide is generally thought to be safer than many others. Yet, GMO technology has encouraged such rapid increases in its use that there are strong concerns about environmental consequences (pesticide resistance) and less settled but still relevant concerns about health consequences (cancer risk).

Indeed, any revolution in food and agriculture technology has good and bad consequences. The central Green Revolution technologies for corn, rice, and wheat were developed with conventional non-GMO science. They saved the world from famine. Yet, just like the new GMO "glyphosate-resistance" trait, the non-GMO Green Revolution technologies encouraged increased use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides, which have environmental and health consequences. If it were up to me, I would support the Green Revolution again, but let's be honest: no revolution in food and agriculture ever is "safe."

2. I never say "GMOs are dangerous."

The fact that a technology is GMO does not make it dangerous. For example, a second major GMO trait is the "Bt" trait, which allows crops to produce the Bt toxin. Bt is widely thought to be harmless for vertebrates, and so natural that it is permitted in "organic" production. You may choose to worry or not worry about Bt. If you do worry, you should avoid both GMO food and organic food.

Other GMO traits have nothing to do with pesticides at all. If a new technology confers drought resistance or increased content of a precursor to vitamin A, my judgment of safety is pretty much indifferent to whether the technology is GMO or non-GMO.

3. I do not support mandatory GMO labels.

The "Just Label It" campaign and other anti-GMO organizations seldom emphasize the mandatory character of their labeling proposals. A mandatory labeling proposal is not just about meeting the needs of curious consumers. It also is about using the government's own authority to stand behind the value of distinguishing between GMO and non-GMO foods.

In the earlier examples, a mandatory GMO label was useless for helping consumers avoid the environmental and health consequences of pesticide overuse, because some GMO technologies (such as drought resistance) have little to do with pesticides and some non-GMO technologies (such as Green Revolution varieties) very much encourage increased pesticide use. Similarly, the GMO label cannot help consumers identify the products of the industrialized food system, because non-GMO foods are almost as likely as GMO foods to come from modern industrial-scale agricultural production.

Many consumers are confused on this point, believing that the non-GMO label distinctly identifies better safety, environmental, and economic qualities. You may think me undemocratic for saying that government policy should not enforce a mandatory GMO label merely because it is popular with a slight majority of citizens in our divided nation. It would be a more profound practice of representative democracy to directly strengthen food policies that provide safe and environmentally sustainable food. The mandatory GMO label will just undermine this endeavor, provoking an inevitable backlash three years down the road as people catch on to how useless it is for achieving their real goals.

4. I do not support stripping states of labeling authority.

Congress should not pass a law, which critics have called the "DARK" act, to strip states of the authority to pass a mandatory GMO label. The proposed law really is undemocratic, and its sponsors corroborate every wild claim ever made by GMO critics. For example, the DARK act's supporters repeat endlessly the claim that GMOs are safe (see #1 above). The "Just Label It" campaign wishes to frame the debate not as a question of government enforcement of a dubious distinction, but instead as a question of our "right to know what is in our food." There is no better way to justify that framing than to try to take away state rights to inform people about what is in their food.

The current state of argument over GMOs in the United States is like a hurricane, blowing first one way and then the other, yielding nothing but destruction. I recognize that the only way to be heard above the storm would be to shout and scream. Yet, here I sit in the storm shelter, reading a day-old newspaper and quietly muttering to myself, "Really, I do think we should be able to talk more sensibly about GMOs."

Thursday, September 03, 2015

New emails illuminate the egg checkoff program's campaign against a vegetarian alternative to mayonnaise

Attorney and advocate Michele Simon yesterday posted a remarkable story based on emails from the egg checkoff program, acquired through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

The emails describe the egg board's campaign against "Just Mayo," a vegetarian alternative to mayonnaise that may not meet the federal government's "standard of identity" for "mayonnaise," which requires eggs.

(U.S. Food Policy first discussed this standard of identity question in February, 2014, long before it had generated any litigation. It was covered recently in the Washington Post's Wonkblog.)

In the emails, egg checkoff program officials -- who are not allowed to seek to influence policy -- try to persuade FDA to crack down on "Just Mayo." They also discuss their efforts to place stories favorable to eggs on blogs that cover diet issues, such as this one in Fooducate.

Simon writes:
One of the most important ways that industrial animal agriculture promotes its products is through Congressionally-mandated “checkoff” programs. Each industry member pays into a collective fund that is controlled and managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The American Egg Board is the egg industry’s checkoff program. Very specific rules govern how it operates, all supposedly overseen by the USDA. The Egg Board’s stated mission (which stems from federal law) is “to allow egg producers to fund to carry out proactive programs to increase demand for eggs and egg products through research, education and promotion.”

And yet, USDA’s recent response to a Freedom of Information Act request reveals a number of highly questionable activities that likely violate federal law. The documents (summarized here) are mostly email exchanges between Egg Board executives and others in the egg industry, or with PR consultants, and reveal a disturbing pattern of attacks on Hampton Creek over a two-year period from 2013-2014. (There’s no indication that the campaign has stopped.)