Will the U.S. Government Cease Recommending Meat?

A battle appears to be brewing over the U.S. Federal Government’s dietary standards, and though nothing is final, the sides are lining up in a way that promises some interesting insights into competing priorities for the American diet.

In one corner, there is the U.S. Department of Agriculture: It publishes the every-5-years Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a thick, complicated set of instructions which most Americans encounter in the “eat this not that” visualization MyPlate. The guidelines are set to renew this year, and the usual federal process of committees, experts and meetings has been grinding along for several years now.

In the opposing corner, there is the country’s large, politically powerful meat-production sector: beef, pork, and chicken raisers, processors and vendors. And they are not happy.

There have been signs for a while that the dietary guidelines committee, made up of academic scientists and medical experts, might consider reframing the last, 2010 recommendation regarding meat consumption, which called for choosing “lean meats.” In the intervening years, multiple studies have demonstrated that raising meat exerts a toll on the global environment, including one last year that singled out beef, more than other meats, for contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. There has been enough concern about the committee including environmental factors in the new guidelines that, when lawmakers passed the omnibus spending bill at the end of last year, they specifically included an instruction to the USDA to not consider “extraneous factors” such as sustainability in changing any guideline goals.

To prepare the guidelines, the advisory committee studies up (here’s a list of some of the data they draw on), hears from other experts, holds public meetings, and prepares a draft. At the last public meeting, held Dec. 15, 2014, the committee presented highlights of its draft via Powerpoint, and triggered an explosion of reaction among meat producers. Meat-industry representatives who were at the meeting say that between sessions, the recommendation for “lean meats” was removed from any mention at all.

The reaction is captured in a Washington Post piece (“The meat industry’s worst nightmare”) and a press release from the North American Meat Institute, the industry’s umbrella organization over multiple animal types and farm sizes:

“The committee’s removal of nutrient-dense lean meat from a healthy dietary pattern is stunning,” said NAMI President and CEO Barry Carpenter. “The change was made behind closed doors during a lunch break at the final December 15 meeting. Actions made in haste behind closed doors are not rooted in science and do not make good public policy.”

The Meat Institute has been backed up by the American Association of Meat Processors, the National Chicken Council, the National Pork Producers Council, and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (“We believe the Committee has lost their way.”) And in a sure sign of trouble to come, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) told the industry publication Brownfield Ag News: “We can’t—for future decades—let these most recent guidelines move ahead.”

Whether to recommend meat, what type of meat is best, and what serving size is healthiest is an old battle for the government, dating back to its first attempt: the 1977 Dietary Goals for the United States, written by the Senate’s Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, which steered people away from animal fat (and contributed to the explosive popularity ever after of the skinless chicken breast).

Is the USDA in fact recommending that the country ditch meat entirely? That seems unlikely, not just politically, but in light of the huge popularity of regimes such as the paleo diet, which centers on lean meat. But what it may be doing is asserting a position from which to conduct the hundreds of negotiations necessary to achieve a final set of guidelines. For a sense of how many negotiations, and from what parts of the industry—sugar, caffeine, the dried-bean lobby, vegans—do a brief scroll through the almost 1,000 public comments submitted so far.

The draft of the 2015 guidelines will be made public sometime this month, in the Federal Register and at health.gov, and will be opened for public comments—and hearings and Congressional oversight—for the final time. At that point, the battle of competing interests will begin in earnest. There’s no way at this point to predict which side will triumph. But it will be very instructive to watch.