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Posted at 2:05 PM ET, 02/15/2011

PCRM sues federal agencies over dietary guidelines

By Tim Carman
dietary guidelines presser_opt.jpg Cabinet secretaries Tom Vilsack and Kathleen Sebelius face the heat over the new dietary guidelines. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, the Washington-based non-profit dedicated to preventive medicine and a vegan diet, sued the U.S. departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services today, claiming the agencies have too many conflicts of interest to issue clear and science-based dietary guidelines.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans were unveiled on Jan. 31 to much fanfare and some criticism.

"The Dietary Guidelines are meant to be read by the 'general public' and not by scientists, biochemists, Nobel Laureates, or others with particular expertise," PCRM's attorney wrote in today's filing in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, which names the departments' secretaries, Tom Vilsack and Kathleen Sebelius, as defendants. "Yet Defendants intentionally use inconsistent language, ambiguous phrases, and biochemical terminology to avoid providing clear dietary information and guidance for the general public regarding the health benefits of reducing consumption of meat and dairy products. This is due to Defendants’ conflicts of interest."

PCRM President Neal Barnard, also an adjunct associate professor of medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine, says the USDA in particular has conflicting missions that make issuing clear guidelines almost impossible.

It's not just special interest groups like the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the National Dairy Council, which lobby the agency for dietary guidelines that benefit their products. But it's also the USDA's conflicting mission. The Ag
Department, notes Barnard, gives nutritional advice to Americans and promotes American agricultural products.

"One job unfortunately has completely confused the other," Barnard says during a phone interview. The PCRM president says flat-out the USDA needs to abandon its mission to promote agricultural products; after all, he notes, the Federal Communications Commission doesn't encourage Americans to watch more TV.

Such conflicts, the lawsuit alleges, lead to ambiguous language that doesn't help the average American piece together a healthful diet.

"For example, the Dietary Guidelines specify foods to eat more frequently (e.g., fruits and vegetables), but avoid identifying foods that people need to eat less often (e.g., meat and cheese)," the lawsuit claims. "Instead, the Dietary Guidelines use biochemical terms unfamiliar to the general public, calling for limiting 'cholesterol,' 'saturated fats,' and 'solid fats' without clearly explaining that: meat, dairy products, and eggs are the only sources of cholesterol in the diet, dairy products are the number-one source of saturated fat, and meat and dairy products deliver the majority of solid fats in the American diet."

AWCE is trying to get a response to the suit from the USDA. But it's worth noting that the guidelines actually do include numerous mentions to reduce meat consumption as well as references to the so-called Mediterranean diet, which promotes healthful living through low-fat foods, including fruits, vegetables and whole grains. To quote just one instance, the guidelines report:

In addition to being a major contributor of solid fats, moderate evidence suggests an association between the increased intake of processed meats (e.g., franks, sausage, and bacon) and increased risk of colorectal cancer and cardiovascular disease. To reduce the intake of solid fats, most Americans should limit their intake of those sources that are high in solid fats and/ or replace them with alternatives that are low in solid fats (e.g., fat-free milk).

Both Barnard and Susan Levin, director of nutrition education for PCRM, agree the new guidelines are unprecedented in promoting the health benefits of plant-based diets, but they also agree the guidelines remain confusing.

"None of this tackles the real issue here, and the point of our lawsuit," writes Levin in an e-mail. "The Guidelines continue to be evasive about what not to eat (processed meat is but a tiny fraction of the issue). The USDA has the impossible task of trying to fulfill two mandates: prop up Big Ag and provide nutrition information."

As for relief, PCRM is asking the court to order the agencies to "withdraw those portions of the Dietary Guidelines that use vague or ambiguous language to hide the ill effects of consuming meat and dairy products and reissue such portions with healthful recommendations based on the preponderance of current scientific and medical knowledge."

In another section of the lawsuit, the non-profit is also asking for the court to rule that the agencies had violated the Administrative Procedure Act for not responding to its March 2010 petition seeking the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services to "withdraw the current MyPyramid food diagram and associated dietary guidelines and adopt the food diagram and dietary guidelines proposed by PCRM."

Asked if the PCRM's lawsuit were less a device to correct any problems with the dietary guidelines and more a tool to promote the group's vegan diet, Barnard said the question itself was focused on the wrong issue. He said the evidence is overwhelming that plant-based diets are more healthful and not reporting such information, in clear and unambiguous terms, in the dietary guidelines is misguided. The government, he notes, should not be telling people to just reduce meat consumption. He compares it to the 1960s when doctors were telling smokers to cut back on cigarettes.

"Nobody says that anymore," Barnard says. "It's the idea that, 'A little bit is OK.' "

By Tim Carman  | February 15, 2011; 2:05 PM ET
Tags:  Tim Carman  
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