Meat lobby successfully waters down US nutrition guidelines

Politicians bow to pressure from the meat industry in not following scientists’ recommendation to advise Americans to eat less red and processed meat

Colourful fruit, vegetables and legumes, some in heart dishes

Americans have been short-changed by those charged with protecting their health, after influential nutritional guidelines were watered down following the intervention of lobbyists for the livestock industry, among others. Critics have branded the 2015 Dietary Guidelines a “national embarrassment” after the recommendations of the advisory body on which they are ostensibly based were toned down at the behest of vested interests promoting the consumption of meat and processed foods.

Influential health writers such as Dr David Katz, founder of the True Health Initiative, a coalition of medical professionals and non-profit groups, called the guidelines “a betrayal of the diligent work of nutrition scientists, and a wilful sacrifice of public health on the altar of profit for well-organised special interests”. Dr Marion Nestle, an author and professor of nutrition and public health at New York University, observed: “Let’s count the 2015 Guidelines as a win for the meat, sugary drink, processed and junk-food industries.”

Published every five years, the guidelines affect such issues as what food is dished up in school canteens across America, where childhood obesity rates have tripled since 1980 and two-thirds of the adult population are overweight or obese. They are based on a scientific report by a panel of experts, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), but politicians have the final say as to what makes it into the Dietary Guidelines as published.

The DGAC produced its 571-page scientific report in January 2015, concluding that a healthy dietary pattern is “higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains [and] lower in red and processed meat”. It said there was “moderate to strong evidence” that it was detrimental to health to eat more rather than less red and processed meat. It advised “reducing consumption of red and processed meat… and replacing solid animal fats with non-tropical vegetable oils and nuts”. And it asserted that diets higher in red and processed meats “are associated with greater colon/rectal cancer risk”.

But within weeks, lobby groups including the National Pork Producers Council, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and North American Meat Institute had stated they would be pushing government to reconsider the science behind the report. As a result of their intervention, when the 2015 Guidelines were eventually published last month, the advice to eat less red and processed meat had been dropped, the only concession a call for men and teenage boys to eat less “protein”.

As Dr Nestle points out, the guidelines “recommend foods when they suggest ‘eat more’ [but] switch to nutrients whenever they suggest ‘eat less’.” That is, rather than saying “eat less processed meat”, the guidelines euphemistically refer to “protein” or “saturated fat” instead. The same applies to fizzy, sugary drinks (“eat fewer added sugars”) and processed food and junk food (“eat less sodium”).

Gone too was the DGAC’s observation that the average US diet “has a larger environmental impact in terms of increased greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use and energy use … because the current US population intake of animal-based foods is higher and plant-based foods are lower” than healthier, low-meat dietary patterns.

In fact, after intense lobbying from food companies, the American Congress passed a law to limit the scope of the Dietary Guidelines to “nutritional and dietary information” only, eliminating all advice to eat with people and planet in mind. The exclusion is all the more startling in the wake of a report last year that showed how eating greener was good for health, and vice versa. And as the DGAC itself observed in its scientific report: “Linking health, dietary guidance and the environment will promote human health and the sustainability of natural resources and ensure current and long-term food security.”

Dr Richard Wender of the American Cancer Society said: “The science on the link between cancer and diet is extensive. By omitting specific diet recommendations, such as eating less red and processed meat, these guidelines miss a critical and significant opportunity to reduce suffering and death from cancer.”

The best advice on the adulterated 2015 Dietary Guidelines? Ignore them, says Dr Katz, and read the full DGAC report instead.