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Administration drops sustainability from upcoming dietary guidelines

Updated dietary guidelines that will come out in December will not factor in environmental sustainability, the Obama administration announced Tuesday.

The guidelines are not "the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell wrote in a joint blog post.

The new guidelines, which are updated every five years, are expected to be released in December.

In April, a federal advisory committee of nutritionists had recommended that the final set of guidelines factor environmental sustainability into Americans' diets. This would have meant a diet with fewer animal-based foods, a recommendation that upset the meat industry.

At a House Agriculture Committee hearing Wednesday focused on the guidelines, Republican lawmakers applauded the decision to drop sustainability. They had argued that including it was outside the administration's scope.

But even with the move, both Democrats and Republicans expressed concern with the process behind the writing of the guidelines.

"From my constituents, most of them don't believe this stuff anymore. You have lost your credibility with a lot of people," Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minnesota, ranking member on the panel, told Vilsack and Burwell.

Peterson and other lawmakers said they were concerned that the guidelines would recommend lower sodium intake and eating less red meat.

"In terms of red meat, I think it's fairly clear that there's a recognition that lean meat should be part of a healthy diet," Vilsack responded.

Burwell told the panel that the upcoming guidelines will focus on "fruits and vegetables, grains and lean proteins and limited amounts of saturated fats, added sugar and sodium."

"In my opinion, it's very dangerous to set forth guidelines when everyone has a different DNA, and everyone has different ages," Rep. Rick Allen, R-Georgia said, adding that the government should not impose a "once-size-fits-all" approach.

Rep. David Scott, D-Georgia questioned why the advisory panel did not recommend low-calorie sweeteners, saying that some studies have said they are helpful for weight loss diets.

Vilsack didn't really answer the question, but added that the panel advised consumers to have sugar from nutritionally-dense foods rather than having empty calories from sweeteners.

Many lawmakers said they were concerned that the final set of guidelines wouldn't be based on science and that they would be considered government-imposed requirements.

"They are not a hard-fast set of rules. It is a set of guidelines, a framework," Vilsack said. "And they're not about treating disease, they're about preventing it."

Nina Teicholz, author of the book "The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet," has been a critic of the federal nutrition guidelines.

"This is the most important set of guidelines in the world and they need to be based on really solid evidence. If the evidence isn't solid then they just ought to maybe just inform rather than advise," Teicholz said.

The Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services are currently drafting the final set of guidelines and incorporating some of the advisory panel's recommendations from earlier this year. Officials are also consulting experts from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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