In a report released in February, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) – a panel of experts tasked with advising the government on what the 2015 guidelines should look like – said Americans should eat a less resource-intensive diet higher in plant-based foods and lower in red and processed meats.
The proposal was immediately slammed by the North American Meat Institute, which said the committee was going “well beyond its scope and expertise”, and had overlooked recent research that factored in the nutritional contribution that animal products make when considering their environmental impact (eg. while the carbon footprint of 10lbs of rice is much lower than 10lbs of beef, the two do not deliver an equal amount of nutrients).
However, supporters said it was a no brainer to factor in sustainability into dietary recommendations.
Vilsack: Dietary Guidelines not the appropriate vehicle for important policy conversation about sustainability
In a blog post explaining the decision, USDA secretary Tom Vilsack and HHS secretary Sylvia Burwell acknowledged that “some of the things we eat, for example, require more resources to raise than others” and that sustainability issues are “critically important”.
However, they added, “Because this is a matter of scope, we do not believe that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) are the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability.
“We will remain within the scope of our mandate in the 1990 National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act, which is to provide ‘nutritional and dietary information and guidelines… based on the preponderance of the scientific and medical knowledge’.”
Barry Carpenter, CEO of the North American Meat Institute, welcomed the decision, adding: "While sustainability is an important food issue, it was outside of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s scope and expertise and would be more appropriately addressed by a panel of sustainability experts that understands the complexity of the issue."
The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) also welcomed the move, but said it remained concerned that some of the DGAC's recommendations were "not based on the best available science, particularly in the areas of sugars [click HERE] , sodium, lean/processed meats [click HERE ], and caffeine [click HERE ],".
However, in a legal analysis released on October 5, public health attorney Michele Simon noted that the dietary guidelines already cover issues such as physical activity and food safety, which are arguably outside the realm of 'nutritional and dietary information'.
She added: “Our analysis of the law, including the Congressional intent, clearly shows that USDA and HHS would be well within its mandate to incorporate sustainability in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans."
CSPI: Science, not politics, should guide dietary guidelines
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), meanwhile, said that while it was it was "unsurprising that some sectors of the food industry would oppose these science-based recommendations", it was "beyond unseemly" for "so many in Congress to thoughtlessly follow the lead of the junk food industry while their constituents suffer and die from preventable, diet-related conditions like diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and cancer".
Executive director Michael Jacobson added that the DGAC had got things about right: "The members of the 2015 DGAC were among the most prominent and respected physicians, epidemiologists, and nutritionists in the country. Using the best and most current methods to review and evaluate the science, and after 24 months of open and public hearings and comment periods, the committee made sound and sensible recommendations to improve public health.
"Its advice for Americans to eat more fruit and vegetables, and to drink less soda and eat less salt and processed red meat, is broadly supported by the public health and medical community."