The Meat Industry’s Influence on American Dietary Guidelines: A Romance
by Sam Dolph
There are many reasons people decide to eat less meat or none at all. Some do it for their health: a 2016 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association ties higher intake of red meat to higher risk of death. Others choose to eat less meat for environmental concerns, as meat production has been shown to greatly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, which scientists say cause global warming. Some believe that reducing meat consumption and production can save both consumers and manufacturers money (roughly $31 trillion, according to a 2016 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences). But no one is deciding to reduce meat intake because the U.S. government is telling them to. And that’s because, well, the U.S. government isn’t saying much.
While the German government declared last month that it will be taking meat off the menus for official functions, and China’s most recent dietary guidelines recommend its citizens to reduce meat consumption by 50%, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines of the United States did not move in the same direction. But the American government’s allegiance to a carnivorous diet isn’t due to a lack of scientific evidence in favor of lowering meat consumption or an absence of public discourse surrounding the topic. Rather, the United States government and the final Dietary Guidelines they release every five years are heavily influenced—controlled even—by the meat industry.
The Dietary Guidelines are produced via a two-step process. First, an Advisory Committee of experts in the fields of health and nutrition review the most recent and peer-reviewed scientific information concerning diet to build an initial report, which receives public commentary once it’s finished. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) then step in to review the report and public commentary, which they use to construct the final Dietary Guidelines.
And what else is part of the equation? A lot of lobbying from the meat industry.
Dr. Miriam Nelson – who served on both the 2010 and 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee and has done extensive research in obesity, exercise, food policy, and sustainability – was proud of the initial report she and her colleagues developed. When I spoke to Dr. Nelson by phone, she said that she and her team were “certainly hopeful that the ‘eat less meat’ recommendation would come through,” given the amount of research out there. When the USDA and HHS released the final guidelines – containing only a small nod to “lower intakes of meat” being part of “healthy eating patterns” – without ever explicitly recommending that the American public eat less meat, the team was disappointed, though not surprised. Nelson and her team cannot be fully sure what happened, but they suspect the beef industry blocked the recommendation.
While the 2015-2020 Guidelines are a prime example of the power that the meat industry has over the USDA, the meat industry’s longstanding influence can be traced back to 1977, when the American National Cattleman’s Association fought against the Senate committee’s initial recommendation for Americans to eat less meat. In Food Politics, author Marion Nestle explores a complicated relationship between government and industry that has developed over time. She quotes Senator George McGovern, then-chairman of the Senate committee who had originally supported a recommendation for Americans to reduce meat intake, but in the end concluded that he “did not want to disrupt the economic situation of the meat industry and engage in a battle…that [he] could not win.”
Because the meat industry is so massive, it contributes a lot of money to the US economy, which means that it has influence over what the government decides to publically say about it. Not only does the meat industry contribute funds to political campaigns, but it also puts money into lobbying efforts in order to sway political decisions in favor of the industry. Members of the USDA have also historically worked in the meat industry, and vice versa, a phenomenon known as the “revolving door.”
The new Dietary Guidelines that are slated to be released in 2020 will likely be no different than those of the past in terms of meat consumption recommendations. To start, we have heard President Trump say that he would feed Chinese President Xi Jinping a McDonald’s hamburger when he visits, and we’ve also heard that Trump forced Chris Christie to order meatloaf at a recent White House dinner. Even if these instances were not policy-driven, they still represent the fact that our new president is not thinking critically about the potential implications tied to the kind and amount of meat that Americans are eating daily.
Sonny Perdue, President Trump’s pick to lead the USDA, is no stranger to lobbying practices. As reported in Mother Jones, Perdue’s first executive order as the former Governor of Georgia was a code of ethics that prohibited state officials from accepting gifts worth more than $25 from lobbyists. But even his own law didn’t stop him: lobbyist expenditures show that Perdue accepted at least 53 gifts from registered lobbyists, amounting to over $23,000 from 2006 to 2010. As the leader of a department that is already accustomed to getting cozy with the meat industry, it looks like Perdue will fit right in.
Both Trump and Perdue have publically advocated for federal deregulation. As far as the eating habits of our nation go, a move towards deregulation might mean major changes to the upcoming Dietary Guidelines or even an elimination of them altogether. Dr. Nelson fears deregulation, but is ultimately hopeful for the future, despite what she sees as temporary setbacks. Dr. Nelson has experienced overwhelming support within the private sector for stricter recommendations regarding reduced meat consumption as it relates to environmental sustainability. Of the 30,000 public comments that the initial report received, Dr. Nelson shared that 80 percent of those comments were in favor of sustainability, including recommendations to eat less meat. “There is so much public support,” she asserted, “so it’s only a matter of time.”