The captive science problem

Opinion by Claire Zabel
March 5, 2015, 9:54 p.m.

Three weeks ago, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee – a government-run nutrition panel tasked with advising Americans on how to eat healthfully – released its updated recommendations. These new guidelines are vastly superior to the old ones. The new guidelines not only iterate old maxims, such as that we need to eat a more plant-oriented diet, but challenge established beliefs like the idea that dietary cholesterol is a primary cause of heart disease; the changes are rooted in thorough, up-to-date  science. However, it has not always been this way.

For many years, the United States government, specifically the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), has made dietary recommendations that conflict with the advice of food scientists — often instructing Americans to consume high quantities of red meat and dairy while ignoring the growing piles of scientific reports detailing the many illnesses this diet was causing. Why was a government agency’s recommendation at odds with medical evidence?

A deep conflict of interest lies at the heart of the USDA’s dietary guideline creation process. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are written and updated every five years through a convoluted process involving the USDA, the Department of Health and Human Services, industry lobbying, and public opinion. What came out of this process was represented pictorially by a food pyramid (which is now a plate).

Biases and special interests creep in and take root in this process, especially within the USDA. The USDA is inherently a captive agency. It has the dual, and perhaps mutually incompatible, mandates of promoting the health of U.S. citizens and protecting the interests of the U.S. agriculture industry. The fact that these two missions are at odds with one another seems obvious. If the science turns against an industry’s main product – whether it is beef, shellfish, or dairy – the USDA is on the horns of a dilemma. They must find a balance between hiding information from the public, and severely damaging or destroying a part of our agricultural economy.

President Lincoln created the USDA in 1862 to assist a fledgling agrarian economy. At the time, there was no apparent conflict between health, agriculture, and the economy – the most obvious health problem was starvation, and nutritional science wasn’t very advanced. However, much has changed since then.

Using the dairy industry as an example, it’s easy to see this conflict of interest. Clearly, and unacceptably, the industrial behemoth that is the U.S. dairy industry has great influence over the USDA. Dairy makes up about 11% of the entire U.S. agricultural economy.  In 2000, the USDA was still recommending two to three servings of dairy products a day, despite protests from other health groups such as the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM).

As the PCRM noted, more than half of the drafting panel for the USDA food recommendations had connections with the dairy industry.  Nevertheless, the USDA maintains that “fluid milk products are basic foods and a primary source of required nutrients…[that] must be readily available and marketed efficiently to ensure that the people of the United States receive adequate nourishment; and the dairy industry plays a significant role in the economy of the United States” (emphasis ours). Here, the USDA even acknowledges implicitly that there is an inherent conflict of interest. Of what relevance to a person’s health is the fact that the dairy industry plays a significant role in the economy of the United States?  None. It may be relevant to the economy, but so are tobacco, alcohol, and junk food. Imagine a recommendation in favor of consuming tobacco or alcohol because of their importance to the economy.

The USDA has a history of administering federally-funded programs that promote milk consumption. These programs, such as the National School Lunch Program, which has been providing milk to school children since 1940, were instituted before there was information available about the negative effects of milk on health.  Now, however, despite substantial damning evidence linking dairy consumption to a wide array of health problems, from acne to heart disease, the industry routinely distorts this information to protect their economic interests, and it does so with government support. We have seen this conflict in other areas as well.  For example, powerful industries have long attempted to bury, discredit, or twist evidence that smoking is bad for our health and that fossil fuels contribute to climate change. Recently, it was discovered that an influential Harvard climate scientist who testified in the Kansas state legislature and had many political connections took a $1.2 million bribe from oil companies. Obviously, science policymaking still has not entirely rid itself of the influence of industry interests.

The new guidelines differ drastically from those of past because of a newfound scientific rigor. The switch has mainly come from the use of randomized controlled trials preferred by the majority of food scientists over traditional epidemiological studies preferred by industry, which often don’t and can’t prove causality.

In the end, the political situation is a familiar one: big business and the U.S. government allying to dupe the American consumer and serve industry interests. Hopefully these new dietary recommendations represent a reversal in this trend, but if they do not, we need to take action to ensure that our health guidelines are based on science and not the wishful thinking of Big-Ag.

Contact Claire Zabel at [email protected] and Joseph (Joey) Zabel at [email protected]

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