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Dietary Guidelines Hearing Unleashes a Predictable Circus of Food Lobbying

It's dietary guidelines season in Washington, and you almost can't count the number of food groups that are lining up to make sure the government doesn't say anything in its revised food recommendations that could possibly hurt their businesses. At a Capitol Hill hearing yesterday, food lobbyists eagerly participated in the same highly political, often surreal, battle over syntax and word choice that has characterized every required five-year revision of the USDA's dietary guidelines.

Perhaps the most urgent plea yesterday came from the meat industry, which is particularly freaked out by the idea that the government might, for the first time, explicitly extol the virtues of a "more plant based diet." A Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report published several weeks ago -- which is just the non-binding recommendations of an outside panel -- contains this especially offending sentence:

Shift food intake patterns to a more plant-based diet that emphasizes vegetables, cooked dry beans and peas, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. In addition, increase the intake of seafood and fat-free and low-fat milk and milk products and consume only moderate amounts of lean meats, poultry, and eggs.
Yes, this may sound like reasonable, common sense advice, but to the National Pork Producers Council and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, that last part about consuming "only moderate amounts" of meat and the very mention of the dreaded "plant based diet" is only slightly less horrible than if President Obama got on TV and instructed Americans to quit eating meat because it causes colon cancer.

Chelsie Redalen, director of government relations for the National Pork Producers Council, complained to the Senate Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs and Product Safety that "urging Americans to shift to a more plant-based diet and consume only moderate amounts of lean meat implies they should decrease consumption of this vital, complete protein."

The fact that this is exactly the advice most many nutritionists would give, as it's widely understood that most Americans eat way too much meat -- some 215 pounds per person per year on average -- appears not to have factored into Redalen's comments.

One of the most reliable fixtures in the fight over dietary guidelines, the sugar lobby, also weighed in with an attempt to prevent the USDA from saying what every American already knows -- that we should consume less sugar. Charles Baker, vp of scientific affairs for the Sugar Association, called the reduction of sugar "impractical, unrealistic, and not grounded in the body of evidence." Further adding to the three-ring circus of plaintive, self-serving pleas was the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which advocated for "moderation" and "balance" -- code for "Please make lots of references to exercise, not just food." Then there was the Salt Institute, which registered its opposition to what is likely to be a recommendation for dramatically reduced sodium intake, from the current figure of 2,300 milligrams a day to a spartan 1,500 mg a day.

And so on and so on.

For the government to issue meaningful food guidelines, which are due at the end of the year, it's going to need to talk clearly and plainly about what we should eat less of, not just what we should eat more of. And if the USDA wants guidelines that people can actually understand and relate to, they'll need to mention specific foods, not just generic nutrients. But doing all this means that some food interests are going to be deeply unhappy, and in the past the USDA has shied away from hurting anyone's feelings. We'll see if this year is different.

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