When the federal Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee met last month in Washington, most Americans were unaware of the proceedings. But all Americans should know that the committee's agenda may give them indigestion, as the government increases control over what they eat.
Every five years, the federal departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services convene the DGAC. The mission is clear: to make sound nutritional recommendations based on the best scientific research. But in recent years, the dietary committee's activities and recommendations have gone far beyond that, to the point of vegan zealotry.
Food nutrition guidelines have taken a back seat to "sustainability," "green practices," "the long-term health of the planet," and other green dreams. As a result, the committee increasingly pushes for all Americans to seek locally sourced, organic, plant-based diets.
The committee's recommendations are used to calculate food allowances for the U.S. military, the food stamp program, the Women Infants and Children program, and the national school lunch program. This will reduce food options for millions of low-income families and students.
The committee agenda also will negatively affect farmers, ranchers, food processors, grocers and many others. Higher food prices will result, causing further hardship to those struggling. Reform is clearly in order.
The committee's current agenda is driven by leaders such as Kate Clancy of the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. In a recent committee presentation, Clancy advocated vegetarianism in order to achieve sustainability in the face of climate change. Clancy's proposal drew rave reviews from committee member Miriam Nelson, nutrition professor at Tufts University and founder of the Strong Women Initiative, which seeks "social change by empowering women to be agents of change in the area of nutrition, physical activity and obesity prevention."
The committee needs to stick to its mandate of providing nutritional and dietary information and guidelines for the public. Moreover, such open advocacy needs to be balanced with more practical considerations, especially from those with actual experience growing and producing food.
The guidelines should be based on the best available scientific and medical knowledge available. They should not be based on questionable studies and biased information carefully cherry-picked by the committee to support preconceived views.
The guidelines also should be thoroughly evaluated and streamlined - taking into account not only nutritional and health considerations, but food cost and consumer choice as well. Regional diversity also should be respected, not ignored. That means hush puppies, black-eyed peas and sweet-potato pies are not to be scoffed at, just because our urbane know-it-alls in Washington don't approve of such foods.
Like most of the federal bureaucracy, the committee lacks accountability and transparency. Reform can start by opening its subcommittee meetings to the public and broadcasting them online. Likewise, all research cited by the committee should be made public from day one, and not kept under lock and key until the committee has submitted its final report.
These common-sense reforms are long overdue but may not be enough to control the committee's agenda. Meanwhile, taxpayers and legislators should be asking some hard questions.
The federal government is hardly the sole source of nutrition information. In the Internet age, such information abounds from multiple sources. Do Americans really need the committee to tell them that a high-fat, high-sodium diet is bad, that a balanced diet is good and too many calories on a daily basis can lead to problems? Do we really need Washington to dictate what we eat?
Elimination of the committee is probably asking too much of an administration that adds new federal bureaus and entitlements, even in a recession. But a future administration might consider putting the committee on a starvation diet.
E.C. Pasour Jr. is a research fellow at The Independent Institute, professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics at North Carolina State University and co-author, with Randal Rucker, of "Plowshares & Pork Barrels: The Political Economy of Agriculture." He wrote this for McClatchy-Tribune News Service.
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