Next Year’s Dietary Guidelines Have a New Challenge

The Lempert Report
October 17, 2019

Susan Walsh writes in the Associated Press how the administration’s personal eating habits may well influence the nation’s dietary guidelines for Americans, which are updated every five years by federal law.

You may recall when the college football national champion Clemson Tigers came to the White House in January they were served a fast-food feast served buffet style in the State Dining Room.

They were served McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), pizza, and Diet Coke. The president boasted to the Clemson players that he ordered from “All-American companies - Burger King, Wendy’s, and McDonald’s.” I guess no one told him that Burger King was bout by Brazil’s 3G, who then merged it into Canada’s Tim Horton’s.

Walsh writes that in a nation where two-thirds of adults and a third of children are overweight or obese, Trump’s banquet really wasn’t funny. According to the 2015 guidelines that are currently in force, poor diet and lack of exercise are likely related to preventable chronic disease in nearly 120 million American adults, including Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer. The direct and indirect costs, in medical care and lost work time, not to mention sheer suffering, run hundreds of billions of dollars.

With a fast-food president as dietitian-in-chief, Walsh writes, special interests surely see their best opportunity in recent memory to undermine the healthiest of science-based recommendations. If they have it their way, the symbol of the all-American diet will remain a Big Mac, Coke, and fries.  

The process of issuing the 2020 Dietary Guidelines starts with the 20-member 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) picked by Sec. Perdue and HHS Secretary Alex Azar.  Here is the problem: 15 of the 20 committee members have direct industry ties or nominations from industry-supported groups or glowing public praise from industry-backed groups.    

Despite Perdue’s pledge “to have professionals on either end of the spectrum, both from the plant-based and the meat-based side of the equation—making recommendations,” academics and public-health groups without industry connections are in the minority.  

Walsh reports that Perdue’s creation of an industry echo chamber has been so discouraging that employees at the top research arms of the USDA, the Economic Research Service, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture have quit in massive numbers. Under the Obama administration, the two agencies together employed 700 people. That number is reportedly down to 450 amid attempts by Trump to slash ERS funding by half and Perdue’s plan to move the ERS and NIFA out of Washington and to USDA’s Kansas City region.