“There Is A Simple Way To Eat Healthier That The Meat Industry Doesn’t Want You To Know About”

May 22, 2015 by

 

  THINK PROGRESS

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For the first time, changes to U.S. dietary guidelines, slated to be released this fall, may call for a cutback in meat consumption — an outcome that meat industry titans are working hard to prevent.

Since February, lobbying groups have fought tooth and nail to challenge the findings of a 571-page report that supports a shift toward what health experts consider a more balanced and healthy diet.

If the recommendations as outlined by the group of health and nutrition experts known as the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee come to fruition, the federal government will press for a higher consumption of fruits and vegetables and advise Americans to cut down on red and processed meat, sugary foods and beverages, refined grains, and food items high in saturated fat and salt.

Proponents of the new standards tie Americans’ poor diet to high rates of obesity and chronic disease. In its report, the committee said that consumers’ food choices have not changed for the better in recent decades, noting a deficiency in vitamin D, calcium, potassium, and fiber.

“No matter which way you look at it, [the American diet] is so not healthy and really just unsustainable,” panel member Miriam Nelson, a professor at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, said at a July meeting.

Five years ago, the government’s 2010 dietary guidelines touted the importance of maintaining a balance diet that includes bread, fruit and vegetables, dairy, meat, and fish in tandem with physical activity. But the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s suggestions want to take it a step further. In its letter to the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the committee recommended bold changes, noting that the guidelines inform federal nutrition policy and, food assistance programs, and a $16 billion school lunch initiative.

The 2010 guidelines called for a reduction of sugar-sweetened beverages and 100 percent juice for children. They also advised against living a sedentary lifestyle, stressing that weight management, in part, prevents most chronic illnesses. The new 2015 guidelines don’t deviate too far from their predecessor, but the committee that compiled them did designate red meat as a food high in saturated fat and cholesterol that should be consumed minimally.

While health advocacy groups — including the American Heart Association and American Institute for Cancer Research — have stood in support of the panel’s recommendations, meat production groups have questioned the scientific integrity of the findings, going as far to call advisory committee members “elitist academics” and “nutrition despots who seek to impose their personal choice on others.”

During the public comment period on the recommendations, which elicited more than 30,000 responses, the meat industry wielded its more than $4 millions of dollars in lobbying power. That influence was evident when 30 U.S. senators — 29 Republicans and one Independent — voiced their concerns to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Matthews Burwell and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack about the quality of the panel’s findings, expressing their disappointment that the recommendations included the removal of “lean meat.” The North American Meat Institute, the National Meat Association, and other groups followed up with statements of their own against an entity they said is threatening their livelihood and individual choice with some even circulating a Change.org petition as part of the “Hands Off My Hot Dog” movement.

“The bottom line is this: When did government start thinking it’s its responsibility to tell us what to put in our mouths?” Ernie Birchmeier, livestock and dairy specialist with the Michigan Farm Bureau, wrote in a statement released in March. “Look at our school lunches. A lot of food is thrown out and wasted because of a select group deciding what’s best for everybody. This is being influenced by a small group of people who have ulterior motives, and sustainability has absolutely nothing to do with dietary guidelines.”

Like other food and manufacturing business elites, the meat industry giants involved in this political fight aren’t strangers to the lobbying game. Unlike their counterparts who spread campaign funds among several lawmakers, meat industry lobbyists focus their sights on the small number of politicians and regulators who directly affect their business dealings.

That lucrative relationship has protected meat manufacturers several times in the last 50 years. For example, after an E.coli outbreak sickened 700 people, meat lobbyists convinced appropriation committee members to introduce an amendment that would delay the rulemaking process and ultimately the implementation of new regulations. Years later, then-Rep. James Walsh (R-NY), who received $6,000 in contributions during the 1996 election cycle, introduced an amendment that would lengthen USDA hearings at a time when lawmakers wanted to put salmonella testing laws in place. Reports later surfaced stating that an attorney for the National Meat association authored Walsh’s amendment.

In 2012, meat industry leaders also derailed President Barack Obama’s attempt to weaken Tyson Foods’ stranglehold on rural farmers. Under the status quo, chicken farmers didn’t own the beef, pork, and chicken they raised, instead working for Tyson for a small percentage. If the Obama administration’s plans would have come to fruition, then farmers could sue meatpackers more easily and worked autonomously under what Vilsack called the “new rural economy.” However, the meat lobby killed those plans, creating what veteran agribusiness journalist Christopher Leonard described as a “spectacular failure.”

Whether the meat industry’s most recent organization strategy will be successful has yet to be seen. But if it does fail, a potential move toward a more plant-based diet could serve as a challenge to a lobbying powerhouse and possibly the final blow to a food culture that has waned in popularity in recent years.

Meat serves as the primary part of the diet in many industrialized countries, with the United States counting as the second-largest consumer per capita. Even with a 12 percent decline in meat consumption within the last decade, the average American still eats more than 200 pounds annually.

While experts contend that eating beef moderately has health benefits, attention has turned to the consequences of excess production, especially since prices have declined. For many, the risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and the greater likelihood of early mortality have become too much to ignore. Additionally, a growing body of research has tied meat production to a larger carbon and water footprint, another point that has galvanized support among environmentalists, especially as California reels from a drought.

That’s why one in 10 millennials has adopted a vegan diet and one third of Americans say they’re cutting back on their meat intake. Those changes have, in part, played a role in the introduction of more vegetarian food choices in fast food restaurants.

Dietician Julieanna Hever raised these points in her op-ed that appeared in The Hill last month, speculating that there’s not much standing in the way of HHS and the USDA finalizing the dietary recommendations later this year as they appeared in February, even with the meat industry’s political connections.

“It is telling that nearly every spokesperson not representing the meat, dairy, egg, and junk food industries who provided oral comments on the committee’s report wholeheartedly embraced this recommendation,” Hever wrote. “The fact is that Americans get it. We’re already eating less meat, and many of us are trying to cut back even further. A diet richer in vegetables, fruits, beans, and grains — and lower in animal products — is what our country needs and wants. And it’s not so controversial after all.”

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