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New US Dietary Guidelines Will Give the Middle Finger to Sustainability

The USDA and HHS have announced that they will not consider sustainability as a factor of concern when releasing their influential Dietary Guidelines for Americans later this year.

by Alex Swerdloff
Oct 7 2015, 5:00pm

Photo via Flickr user cafnr

It's 2015. We, as a nation, have been witness to massive egg shortages due to an unprecedented avian flu outbreak. We've also had the distinct pleasure of observing the countless victims of the West Coast's near-apocalyptic drought. And the UN has issued a report that says that meat production is the main contributor to greenhouse gases and thus has a potential impact on climate change.

And yet, in the gaunt face of all this, the US government refuses to declare that sustainability and impact on the environment is an important concern in what we should eat as a nation.

That's right, party people. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) just dropped the bomb that they will not consider sustainability as a factor of concern when releasing their influential DGAs—or Dietary Guidelines for Americans—later this year.

"Issues of the environment and sustainability are critically important," explained HHS Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack via joint statements on each of their agency's blogs. "But because this is a matter of scope, we do not believe that the 2015 DGAs are the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability."

The reason behind this blatant affront to common sense? Why, the meat lobby, of course. The US meat industry has staunchly fought tooth and nail to ensure that sustainability is not included as a component in the dietary guidelines, which influence everything from military meals to food stamps to school lunches.

Here's the thing, though. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee issued a "Scientific Report" earlier this year—something it does every five years in advance of issuing the actual guidelines. And in this year's report, they called for a "shift toward a greater emphasis on health dietary patterns and an improved environmental profile across food categories to maximize environmental sustainability." Those few words made the meat industry crazy: What? The government is going to consider the environment as a factor when issuing the US dietary guidelines?

The result was a push and pull over the past few months. The meat industry wanted environmental issues out as a consideration in government food policies. Academics, nutritionists, and health professionals wanted them in. The public also appeared to support their inclusion, according to a study by the analytics firm Quid.

So what happened? Why did the committee back away from the language of its own report?

It seems the meat industry came down pretty hard following the report's issuance. Barry Carpenter, president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute said, "The committee's foray into the murky waters of sustainability is well beyond its scope and expertise. It's akin to having a dermatologist provide recommendations about cardiac care."

And now, sustainability is out as a factor in the dietary guidelines.

Fortunately for the environment, general health concerns alone will probably still limit the amount of meat that the DGAs recommend. Even Michele Simon, a food lawyer who represents a coalition of plant-based food companies, said, "While disappointing, I can appreciate the agencies did not want the issue to distract from the very important nutrition advice to eat less red and processed meat and more plant foods."

So meat recommendations may be lowered thanks to health concerns—but now out of worries about the environment.

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