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USDA Says 'Cheese'

In an unsurprising bit of news, industry groups appear to favor guidelines that recommend their particular product and disfavor those that advise against it.

On Jan. 31, 2011, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released the 2010 Dietary Guidelines (better late than never). The food industry reactions are varied and anything but tepid.

The Salt Institute calls the Guidelines “drastic, simplistic and unrealistic” after the recommendations suggested cutting sodium. For the first time ever, the Guidelines include substantial recommendations for those who choose vegan or vegetarian diets; on top of that, soy-fortified foods and beverages were specifically singled out as desirable, so the Soyfoods Association of America finds the Guidelines “relevant for all Americans.” And the National Cattlemen's Beef Association seems satisfied that the recommended meat consumption hasn’t diminished.

So, in an unsurprising bit of news, industry groups appear to favor guidelines that recommend their particular product and disfavor those that advise against it. But why is the USDA even involved in these recommendations to begin with?

On its own website, the USDA lists the first key activities in the department's Strategic Plan Framework as “expanding markets for agricultural products and support[ing] international economic development” and “further developing alternative markets for agricultural products and activities.”

While it is surely helpful in our globalized economy to have a U.S. agency cheerleading on behalf of farmers, ranchers and other U.S. food producers, such an agency should have no involvement in recommendations made on behalf of public health.

Last November, the New York Times reported on a mini-scandal involving the USDA's Dairy Management marketing group, which teams up with restaurants to figure out stealthy ways to add more dairy products to existing recipes. In the case of Domino’s Pizza, this led to the development of a pie with 40 percent more cheese — and nearly two-thirds the recommended daily intake of saturated fat.

As the Times reported, these Dairy Management activities were necessitated by other USDA initiatives. Because of sustained warnings about the dietary harm caused by drinking full-fat milk, most Americans have switched to lower-fat varieties, leaving dairy producers a surplus of milk fat with no buyers. Because a large segment of the USDA’s responsibility is to market agricultural products, the agency needed to devise new ways to use the excess fat.

The USDA has become, primarily, a marketing agency for U.S. food products. What does this have to do with public health, which is, ostensibly, the point of the Dietary Guidelines? The agency has a conflict of interest when it comes to its responsibilities. It is charged with pushing agricultural products, even those that are less-than-nutritious.

The existence of those products is perfectly justifiable — Americans should be able to choose whether or not they want to eat gut-busting meals and treats. But the organization responsible for advising Americans on healthful diets should not also be responsible for covertly selling them the very products advised against.

An appropriate division of labor should be created, wherein the USDA is responsible for overseeing the safety of the food producers in its purview and aiding in developing policies that benefit U.S. agriculture. HHS is perfectly positioned to act independently of the USDA in updating the Dietary Guidelines, making recommendations about school lunch nutrition benchmarks and otherwise advocating on behalf of consumers.

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