October 26, 2015

October D.C. update

Washington DC Capitol building

By Walt Smith, FASS Science Policy Director

Oct. 26, 2015 – While Congress continues to fund the federal government through a continuing resolution set to expire in early December, the focus of the agriculture Committees and others have turned to oversight. To this end, one issue that has come to the forefront in recent weeks is dietary guidelines.

The Dietary Guidelines (DG) are authorized under the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act of 1990. According to the Act, the DG must contain nutritional and dietary information and guidelines for the general public and be “based on the preponderance of the scientific and medical knowledge current at the time the report is prepared;” and “shall be promoted by each Federal agency in carrying out any Federal food, nutrition, or health program.”

By making sure the Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS), the Congressional authors believed that a cohesive message and recommendations could be achieved. By updating these guidelines with the most current data available, it was envisioned that the guidelines themselves would be able to change as new and better research was conducted. Unfortunately, in this time when many in the public find conflicting messages when making food choices, animal agriculture seems to continually face an uphill battle in conveying its positive contributions and it appears the guidelines have not escaped this conflict.

The process for the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans began in 2012, when USDA Secretary Vilsack and then HHS Secretary Sebelius, appointed fifteen dietary experts to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC). Although the committee was not mandated under the original Act, it had to be established under the Federal Advisory Committee Act. This Act requires that recommendations be “objective and accessible to the public” by creating a formal process of “establishing, operating, overseeing, and terminating” the committee. This may seem an irrelevant point. However, it prescribes that the committee is accountable to only the USDA and HHS. This point has become increasingly problematic as the guidelines, as proposed, have been broadly criticized by many as delving outside the realm of their purpose. Specifically, outdated concepts and sustainability, not simply scientific research and nutrition, were both considered and made a part of the recommendations. This inclusion has raised many red flags among commodity groups, scientists, nutritionists and policymakers alike, which led to over 29,000 public comments when the guidelines were first proposed.

The outcry was loud enough that on the eve of a recent Congressional hearing in which both USDA Secretary Vilsack and HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell were to testify, they released a joint statement acknowledging the scope of the guidelines should be just those outlined in the Act and not include a discussion of sustainability.  This statement seems to indicate that no language addressing sustainability will be in the final version of the rule and their testimony the following day confirmed this point. Does this mean the controversies and concerns are over related to the guidelines?  That is far from the case.  Continued specific concerns raised over the need for sound science have even prompted a White House Petition to request a formal review of the process and findings.  A copy of the petition can be viewed at https://www.change.org/p/demand-that-quality-science-determine-the-2015-u-s-dietary-guidelines

As the USDA and HHS move toward adoption of a final rule, know that concerns over the development of these guidelines, and the need for them in general, continue to be raised. Everyone from industry and academia to the average consumer is greatly impacted by these guidelines. They provide the basis for nutrition education, school lunch programs, food assistance programs, “healthy” eating and food claims, and set a standard used by countries the world over. These issues will continue to be discussed by policymakers, and observers can expect increased Congressional scrutiny as the final rule is released prior to 2016.