The Atlantic

How Agriculture Controls Nutrition Guidelines

Meat producers showed dominance over scientists this week, preventing discussion of sustainability.
Source: Michael Stern / Flickr

“My question is related to moderate alcohol intake,” representative Stacey Plaskett said Wednesday morning in a Congressional hearing that was almost momentous. With this question she was, as a congressperson should be, the voice of many.

Plaskett peered over her reading glasses at the de facto arbitrator of such matters, secretary of health and human services Sylvia Burwell. “I noted that the 2015 recommendations confirmed the conclusions from 2010,” Plaskett continued. “Do you think that’s going to remain the same, or will that change? Will the definition of moderation change as well?”

“We’re not going to comment on specifics,” Burwell deflected. “We” referred to secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack, who sat immediately to her right. Before them was a semicircle of congresspeople in elevated chairs who constitute the House committee on agriculture. The ensuing conversation was a polite but charged, deeply consequential battle for influence over what people eat.

Burwell and Vilsack together lead the group that is challenged with converting an expert statement on what constitutes an ideal diet for Americans—written by a panel of 15 academic researchers—into national nutrition guidelines by December. These guidelines are revised and edited every five years. The expert recommendations, published in May, took into account more than 4,000 scientific studies. Burwell emphasized that the experts had not recommended a change in guidelines with regard to alcohol.

“After this hearing, I may be consulting that guideline,” Vilsack interjected dryly.

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