An agency that exists to promote consumption of agricultural products is probably not the best one to be in charge of our national nutrition policy.
As you’ve probably heard by now, the government has finally released the latest update of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). These guidelines are revised every five years to take into account the latest scientific developments, and are almost invariably released late. (The just-published version is the 2015 update.)
Even though most citizens never read the guidelines and would be hard-pressed to identify even one of the recommendations they contain, the DGA nonetheless influences every American, because this document is the cornerstone for all federal nutrition policies, programs, and educational outreach, including things like school lunch programs, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and the My Plate program.
If all of this seems like déjà vu, it’s because we were talking about this last February, which is when the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee released their Scientific Report. This document, which is produced by a panel of independent nutrition scientists and researchers, is supposed to be the basis for the guidelines themselves. But that’s not what happens.
Public Comment or Industry Lobbying?
After the Advisory Committee publishes their report, there is a period during which the public is invited to submit comments to the USDA, before the final guidelines are issued. Here’s what really happens: Paid lobbyists for various sectors of the food industry spend the next nine months on a well-funded campaign to remove, or at least dilute, any recommendations that threaten the bottom line of their corner of the industry.
Members of congress get into the act too, privately and publicly harassing the Secretary of Agriculture to remove any recommendations that negatively impact their constituents or donors.
As a result, the final guidelines, the ones that will steer national policy and expenditures for the next five years, are confusing, inconsistent, and watered down in ways that clearly reveal the political horse-trading that has gone on behind the scenes. What does and doesn't make it into the final guidelines, and how the recommendations are worded, has a lot less to do with the convictions of nutrition scientists and a lot more to do with how much money a given industry can afford to spend.