At this point, it's pretty much common knowledge that eating too much meat isn't good for you, and it isn't good for the environment, either. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that it's taken this long for the government to specifically advise Americans to cut out the burgers and pork chops wherever possible.
Yesterday, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC)—a small, federally recognized group of experts in nutrition, medicine, and public health—released its 2015 recommendations for the American diet. Every five years, DGAC convenes to advise the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the USDA, and the agencies take the suggestions into consideration as they prepare their official Dietary Guidelines for Americans, also released every five years. This year, DGAC, told this junk food-loving nation that we're eating and drinking way too much sugar and are a bit too immoderate when sprinkling our foods with salt. On the other hand, the panel also OK'd "moderate" alcohol consumption (score!) and eased outdated restrictions against whole eggs. Most controversially, though, DGAC also recommended we reduce "consumption of red and processed meats." And boy, did that little nugget of advice set off a shitstorm (manure storm?) in the world of Big Meat.
In the past, DGAC has done its best to steer—pun intended—clear of the powerful meat lobbies, urging Americans to consume more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, but also telling us that it was OK for most of us to shovel down three to four servings of "lean meats, poultry, and fish" per day. This year, however, the panel's language when it comes to flesh is more pointed, warning that "excessive meat intake" is associated not only with poorer diet quality but also with "increased projected greenhouse gas emissions," nodding not only towards human health but the health of the planet. "Beef was the single food with the greatest projected impact on the environment," the report reads. It almost goes as far as recommending that we all go organic: "The organically grown vegan diet also had the lowest estimated impact on resources and ecosystem quality."
The suggestion that their products are harming both people and the environment—and that the HHS and the USDA might actually formally agree with that suggestion when they release their own health guidelines later this year—is understandably giving meat producers a bad case of indigestion. They've been swift to respond to DGAC's claims, firing back that meat should of course remain a key part of the American diet.
'Have we really come to the point where alcohol is okay and meat isn't?' NPPC president Howard Hill asked.
The National Pork Producers Council (NPCC) "urges the USDA and HHS secretaries to keep meat in the center of America's plate," a press release reads. The bacon-pushers take a dig at both gourmands and imbibers: "It appears the advisory committee was more interested in addressing what's trendy among foodies than providing science-based advice for the average American's diet," NPPC president Howard Hill said. "Have we really come to the point where alcohol is okay and meat isn't?" And as for the whole destroying-the-environment claim, Hill maintains that "pork producers today are much more environmentally friendly than even 25 years ago."
The North American Meat Institute (NAMI), too, has a (T-) bone to pick with DGAC. In a press release, president and CEO Barry Carpenter insists that "meat and poultry are among the most nutrient dense foods available." But Carpenter doesn't stop there: he continues on to compare apples to oranges, so to speak, claiming that "ten pounds of beef or pork provide more complete nutrition when consumed than ten pounds of rice or broccoli." And in response to DGAC's (widely proven) claim that cattle operations are destroying the environment, Carpenter pretty much discounts the panel's expertise when it comes to environmental issues. "If our government believes Americans should factor sustainability into their choices, guidance should come from a panel of sustainability experts that understands the complexity of the issue," he says. Since the DGAC members are experts not on sustainability but on health, their recommendations "appear to be based on personal opinions or social agendas," Carpenter says.
Time will tell whether HHS and the USDA will bow to the pressure of the meat lobbies or not; their health guidelines will be released later in the year. In the meantime, we'll be observing some of DGAC's more palatable suggestions for our health by downing a cocktail and tucking into a plate of deviled eggs.