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PCRM Sues USDA Over Deceptive Dietary Guidelines

PCRM Sues USDA Over Decpetive Dietarty GuidelinesIn a lawsuit filed Feb. 15, 2011, PCRM is suing the federal government over the newly released Dietary Guidelines for Americans, accusing officials of using deliberately obscure language regarding foods Americans should avoid. PCRM’s legal filing cites the government’s conflicts of interest and arbitrary and capricious behavior in developing nutrition advice that was supposed to help Americans fight record obesity levels.

The Dietary Guidelines—issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services every five years—are the blueprint for all federal nutrition programs, including school meals. All federal nutrition policies and communications are to be in sync with the Guidelines.

The current lawsuit is not the first time PCRM has called the government on the carpet for faulty nutrition guidance. A decade ago, PCRM sued the federal government, charging that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2000 had been prepared largely in secret by a committee that included individuals with links to the meat, dairy, and egg industries. The court ruled in PCRM’s favor, and subsequent Guidelines have been prepared through a more transparent process by committees with fewer industry ties.

The 2005 Dietary Guidelines were a step forward. And the 2010 Dietary Guidelines are, in fact, the best ever. They praise plant-based diets:

“Vegetarian-style eating patterns have been associated with improved health outcomes—lower levels of obesity, a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, and lower total mortality. Several clinical trials have documented that vegetarian eating patterns lower blood pressure.” 

The new Guidelines also devote two full pages to vegetarian and vegan nutrition, showing exactly how to pull a healthy diet together.

Power to the Plate

PCRM's lawsuit against the USDA also asks the government to abandon the food pyramid. The lawsuit demands a response to PCRM's March 2010 petition requesting that the USDA and HHS withdraw the confusing MyPyramid food diagram and instead use PCRM's Power Plate diagram and PCRM's associated dietary guidelines.

In January, PCRM doctors and dietitians brought a 6-foot-high Power Plate to the White House and the USDA headquarters. The Power Plate is straightforward—there are no confusing portion sizes or food hierarchies to follow. It simply asks people to eat a variety of all four food groups each day.

Dietary Guidelines Translator

DGA-Speak: “Consume less than 300 mg per day of dietary cholesterol.”

Translation: Eat fewer or no animal products. Meat, dairy products, and eggs are the only sources of dietary cholesterol.

DGA-Speak: “Reduce the intake of calories from solid fats…”

Translation: Reduce or eliminate meat and dairy intake. These are the biggest contributors of solid fats in the American diet.

DGA-Speak: “Consume less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fatty acids…”

Translation: Skip the cheese, ice cream, and other dairy products. Dairy products are the No. 1 source of saturated fat in an American’s diet.

So What’s Wrong?

Despite the major steps forward, the new Guidelines perpetuate a fatal flaw found in previous iterations—a flaw that PCRM contends is designed to keep Americans eating unhealthy foods. 

The problem is word choice. For healthful foods that people should eat more of, the Guidelines are clear. They encourage readers to eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. But when it comes to foods people need to eat less of (e.g., meat and cheese), the Guidelines resort to biochemical terms instead of listing specific foods, apparently out of fear of upsetting food producers. That is, the Guidelines call for limiting “cholesterol,” “saturated fat,” and “solid fat.”

Similarly, while dairy products account for more than 30 percent of the saturated (“bad”) fat in the American diet, the Guidelines disguise this fat by splitting dairy products into many categories, including cheese (8.5 percent), butter (2.9 percent), whole milk (3.4 percent), reduced-fat milk (3.9 percent), dairy desserts (5.6 percent), and pizza (5.9 percent), so their contribution to ill health is harder to see.

The new Guidelines also continue to give undue emphasis to dairy products, downplaying more healthful sources of calcium, such as green leafy vegetables and beans. This, despite studies clearly showing that children who get calcium from foods other than dairy products have totally normal bone development and other studies showing that older adults who drink milk have no protection from osteoporosis-related fractures.

Why It Matters

At a time when Americans are in the worst physical shape in history and childhood obesity is at unprecedented levels, the government cannot beat around the bush or kowtow to agribusiness, according to PCRM.

“The new Dietary Guidelines mention ‘solid fats’ 155 times, beginning in the Executive Summary,” PCRM attorney Dan Kinburn writes in the lawsuit. “However, the Dietary Guidelines fail to explain that meat and cheese are sources of solid fat until page 25.”

Nowhere do the Guidelines advise Americans to avoid these products.

“The Dietary Guidelines are meant to be read by the ‘general public’ and not by scientists, biochemists, Nobel Laureates, or others with particular expertise,” Kinburn points out.

In Their Worst Interests

Why is the federal government issuing confusing and misleading nutrition advice? PCRM’s lawsuit cites the USDA’s conflicts of interest. By law, the USDA is tasked with encouraging Americans to eat healthfully, but the agency must also promote agricultural profits.

And conflicts of interest, while less common than before, were still found in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. One member, Cheryl Achterberg, is a former scientific advisor to the Dannon Institute and has received grants from Kraft General Foods and Campbell’s Soup. Another member, Miriam E. Nelson, served on an advisory council for McDonald’s.

In addition to these ties, the USDA is pressured by industry representatives peddling everything from meat and cheese to soda and bubblegum.

This graphic in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 disguises the amount of saturated fat from dairy products. It breaks up dairy products into many categories, including cheese, butter, whole milk, reduced-fat milk, dairy desserts, and pizza, so their contribution to health problems is harder to discern. (Credit: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010.)

Spell It Out

A range of journalists and nutrition researchers have joined PCRM in pointing out the Guidelines’ lapses.

At the press conference unveiling the new Guidelines, POLITICO reporter and former New York Times food columnist Marian Burros questioned USDA secretary Tom Vilsack about the blatant omissions in the document. Vilsack, a defendant in PCRM’s lawsuit, tried to sidestep the question, but Burros demanded an answer.

“You didn’t answer my question,” Burros said. “Why don’t you specifically say, ‘Eat less meat’?”

Walter Willett, M.D., M.P.H., chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, addressed the document’s ambiguity in a National Public Radio interview. “What Americans really should be told is we need to eat less red meat, less cheese, less ice cream, and less refined grains,” Dr. Willett said on the Diane Rehm Show.

The government’s efforts to soften the language of the Dietary Guidelines to protect the meat and dairy interests throw the Guidelines themselves into doubt. With one in three children overweight and health care expenditures breaking records every day, PCRM holds that we cannot afford federal health guidance that is anything other than honest.   

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