WASHINGTON, DC—The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine today formally petitioned the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to halt its process for revising the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, noting that the process, as proposed, is racist and “rife with conflicts of interest that result in nutrition recommendations favoring the economic interests of unhealthful food industry associations over the health interests of the general public.”
The legal petition was filed in response to a set of proposed scientific questions HHS and USDA jointly published on April 14, 2022, which are intended to guide the development of the Dietary Guidelines 2025-2030. The agencies will use the questions to influence the selection of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) members, the DGAC’s agenda, and the content of the next Dietary Guidelines. The DGAC is a group of nominated individuals, whose reviews nutrition research and drafts a scientific report that the USDA and HHS use to develop the final guidelines.
The proposed questions specifically avoid issues that are key to African American health—notably foods associated with massive disparities in deaths from colorectal, prostate, and breast cancers—meaning that these issues will be excluded from the upcoming revision process. The proposed questions are also skewed in favor of industry, sidestepping the health problems caused by meat and dairy products.
The Physicians Committee’s legal action requests that the Dietary Guidelines focus on public health, its original intent, rather than bolstering the meat and dairy industries. The document says that “the agencies have inappropriately designed these questions to skew the revision of the Dietary Guidelines (1) away from a discussion of the health risks posed by meat and dairy products, (2) away from the health problems these products pose for persons of color, and (3) away from the benefits of plant-based diets, all to the detriment of public health.”
“Enough is enough,” says Vanita Rahman, MD, clinical director at Barnard Medical Center. “The 2025-2030 Dietary Guidelines for Americans must stop putting meat and dairy industry interests over public health—and that starts by ensuring that the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee answers questions that explicitly address the dangers of animal products and the benefits of a plant-based diet.”
The petition asks that the HHS and USDA Offices of Inspector General investigate and ensure that the agencies:
- Reissue the proposed scientific questions intended to guide the development of the Dietary Guidelines 2025-2030.
The petition provides evidence showing that the proposed questions (1) focus solely on dietary patterns, thereby obscuring the health risks of specific foods, such as processed meat and dairy products, particularly for people of color, (2) use technical terms, such as saturated fat, to avoid discussion of the detrimental effects of consuming meat, dairy products, and eggs, (3) fail to consider vegan and vegetarian diets, despite their well-established health benefits, and (4) fail to address health equity, despite the evidence showing that meat and dairy products increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, and breast cancer—diseases that disproportionately affect Black Americans.
- Disallow nominations submitted by USDA’s checkoff programs, which are prohibited by law from influencing governmental policy or action.
Checkoff programs are overseen by the USDA and are designed to stimulate sales and consumption of commodity foods such as beef and eggs. Checkoff programs are prohibited from using their funds to influence governmental policy or action. But the petition shows that in 2012, “the egg checkoff program nominated seven individuals to serve on the 2015 DGAC.”
- Prohibit the DGAC from considering promotional research overseen by USDA, an appointing authority.
Because their sole goal is to increase economic demand—with no regard to human health—studies funded by USDA’s checkoff programs use specific design flaws to minimize the reported negative health effects of their commodities. The petition notes, “As a result of the USDA egg checkoff program’s intentionally misleading research, the 2015 DGAC contradicted decades of unbiased scientific research by advising that cholesterol is no longer ‘a nutrient of concern for overconsumption’ and that ‘available evidence shows no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol and serum cholesterol.’ This finding was demonstrably false at the time and has been contradicted by subsequent research studies, including those funded by the egg industry.”
- Require that the DGAC consider all relevant scientific and medical knowledge, regardless of publication date, and to prioritize independent and unbiased research over industry-funded research.
In the past the agencies limited the DGAC’s review of scientific literature to the preceding five-year period. This is a problem because, the petition says, “Industry funding of food-related research has become rampant in recent decades. For example, of the 41 studies on dietary cholesterol included in a 1992 meta-analysis, 29% were paid for by industry, mainly the egg industry. Nine years later, in a 2001 meta-analysis, that figure had risen to 41%. Two decades later, in a review published in 2013, the figure was 92%.” Industry-funded studies employ the same intentional design flaws used by the USDA’s checkoff programs to maximize the economic demand of their products without regard to human health. HHS and USDA should follow the lead of their counterparts in Canada, who excluded research funded by the food industry when developing the country’s analogous Food Guide.
“By intentionally and repeatedly using artful language in critical aspects of the Dietary Guidelines process, HHS and USDA have deceived and harmed Americans for decades, compromising public health interests in favor of promoting specific food products,” the petition concludes. “Because the Dietary Guidelines are ‘promoted by each Federal agency in carrying out any Federal food, nutrition, or health program,’ it is imperative that they be issued in accordance with the law.”