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Big Beef’s jig is up

Federal dietary committee recommends eating less red meat. Will science finally trump politics?

February 26, 2015 2:00AM ET

You almost have to feel sorry for the beef industry. After enjoying decades of popularity as a staple of the all-American diet, the harsh realities behind unsustainable beef production and excessive consumption are finally coming to light.

The latest red meat scare comes from the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) a scientific body formed every five years to review the latest research available to tell the American public how to eat right. In the past, the committee’s work has been undermined by members with conflicts of interest with the meat, egg and dairy industries. But this year’s committee pulled no punches, even extending its reach to environmental considerations for the first time. The recommendations are not the final word on the matter. Later this year, the federal government will issue its formal Dietary Guidelines for Americans after reviewing the committee’s research and public comments.

The DGAC report (PDF), 571 pages long, is nicely summarized by New York University professor Marion Nestle, who calls the document “courageous,” in part for its strong stand in advising Americans to lower their meat consumption. Specifically, the committee found “moderate to strong evidence” that higher intake of red and processed meats was more harmful to health compared with lower intake.” The strongest and most consistent evidence was associated with eating fruits and vegetables.

But that’s not all.

The DGAC found for the first time that diets emphasizing plant-based foods over meat are better for the environment. Specifically, the committee noted that currently, “the average U.S. diet has a larger environmental impact in terms of increased greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use and energy use” compared with a “healthy vegetarian pattern,” which is “aligned with lower environmental impacts.”

The meat lobby is not pleased.

Calling the recommendations “flawed and nonsensical,” the North American Meat Institute came out swinging in the press, as did the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which said, “It is misleading to conclude that a healthy dietary pattern should be lower in red meat.”

Why is this important? Who even pays attention to government dietary advice anyway? The meat, egg and dairy industries certainly think it’s important enough to have historically exerted their influence over the process. Here is their clever approach: Pull political strings to get the feds to advise Americans that animal foods are essential to health. Then point to the official Dietary Guidelines for Americans as the gold standard for alleged scientific proof of how to eat right. Never mind the manipulation that made it so.

In addition, the official dietary guidelines provide the nutritional basis for federal food assistance programs such as school meals, which represents a huge market for the food industry. In fact, one of the most important recommendations of the current DGAC is to align food assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (previously called food stamps) with the dietary guidelines.

We should celebrate the committee’s noble efforts to bring nutrition science up to date with what health experts and advocates have known for decades: that shifting away from meat toward plant-based foods is best for people and the planet. 

Will 2015 finally be the year that science and the public interest triumph over spin and greed?

But the work is far from over.

Now comes the hard part: ensuring that the federal agencies charged with reviewing the recommendations and public comments — the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services — don’t allow politics to interfere with science. History tells us that advocates must counter meat industry meddling.

In 1979 the federal government tried to issue a report recommending that Americans cut back on red meat, but the industry backlash was so severe that the tepid official advice ever since has been to “choose lean meats” (PDF).

In 1991 the meat industry got so upset over the soon-to-be-released food guide pyramid (which gave meat and dairy less prominence) that the government delayed its release for a year and wasted a million dollars on consumer surveys.

Will 2015 finally be the year that science and the people triumph over spin and greed?

It’s going to take a concerted effort in Washington to match the power of Big Beef. Some advocacy groups have joined forces. For example, a coalition led by Friends of the Earth that includes the American Public Health Association praised the committee’s emphasis on sustainability and urged the USDA to resist political pressure.

That’s a good start, but it takes more than just sign-on letters and press releases to match the power of meat lobbyists, who, with a couple of phone calls, can make agency heads nervous. The meat industry’s best ally is the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. As Politico reported, the meat lobby has already been calling on its friends in Congress:

The meat recommendation will face steep opposition, including from Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Roberts told Politico he and several committee colleagues agree with the beef industry’s position on red meat consumption. He also said he wants to ensure that all scientific research, including some sponsored by the industry, is considered.

Translation: Never mind the scientific findings of the dietary guidelines committee; we want to replace that with industry spin.

A lot of money is at stake. According to financial analyst StreetAuthority in an article for Nasdaq, “Investors shouldn’t underestimate the potential effect” of federal advice to eat less meat on the industry. It predicts that “unfavorable” dietary guidelines could be detrimental to the stocks of successful meat producers such as Tyson Foods and Hormel Foods.

On the flip side, healthier food companies stand to benefit significantly. Perhaps the time has come for plant-based food companies to flex their own political muscle. As I’ve written, a new generation of animal-free meat, egg and dairy companies is pushing the envelope, seeking to reach mainstream consumers. That burgeoning food sector should take a page from Big Meat and lobby the federal government to adopt the DGAC’s recommendations to reduce meat and increase plant-based foods. (You can submit your comments until April 8.)

This sentence from report’s executive summary should serve as a useful guide for who should step into this fight: “A diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds … is more health promoting.” I am often asked where the lobbyists are for healthy foods. It’s time they get organized.

Michele Simon is a public health lawyer, the president of Eat Drink Politics, the author of “Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back” and an attorney with Foscolo and Handel, the food law firm.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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