Every five years since 1980, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issue dietary guidelines they call “authoritative [diet] advice for Americans.” The unveiling of the final guidelines follows a report from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) and a comment period for the public to weigh in on the findings.
After issuing its last round of guidelines in 2010, the HHS received 1,159 comments. Its latest diagnosis of the American diet has received more than 8,000 comments (the comment period ends May 8), largely due to a controversial finding that a plant-based diet is both “more health promoting,” and ”associated with less environmental impact than is the current US diet.”
It marked the first time that the DGAC had considered sustainability in its findings, and included a rare explicit recommendation to eat less meat: “A healthy dietary pattern is… lower in red and processed meats.”
While many faith-based organizations, universities, and health professionals have lauded the attempt to connect our diet to sustainability, the meat industry strongly opposes it. “It is not appropriate for the person designing a better light bulb to be telling Americans how to make a better sandwich,” Betsy Booren, Vice President of Scientific Affairs for the North American Meat Institute, said in one comment. Even USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has come out against discussing sustainability in the dietary guidelines, making the stipulation’s chances of survival seem slim at best.
If the clause has any chance of surviving, it might be thanks to a new counterweight to the US meat lobby. A coalition of more than 20-plant based food companies, including The Tofurky Company, Emmy’s Organics, and Daiya Foods, joined together to support including sustainability in the guidelines. “The DGAC’s findings reflect a substantial body of science that illustrates the synergies between a healthy diet and a sustainable food system,” Michele Simon, a food industry lawyer who runs the consulting firm Eat Drink Politics, wrote in comments submitted on the coalition’s behalf.
Sales of meat alternatives still only account for a fraction of US meat sales ($550 million in 2014, compared to roughly $70 billion in sales of beef, poultry, and pork, according to Mintel). But the coalition’s letter is a reminder to the USDA that plant-based food companies represent a legitimate sector of the economy, showing that “the ‘food industry’ is not one monolithic group but rather includes a wide array of food businesses,” says Kim Kessler, Policy and Special Programs Director of the UCLA Resnick Program for Food Law and Policy.
For the USDA, which has a dual mission to protect American agribusiness and advise on healthy diets, the meat lobby’s economic might counts for a lot. ”In policymaking, pizza usually speaks more loudly than peas,” Doug Blanke, Director of the Public Health Law Center at William Mitchell College of Law tells Quartz.
But scientific evidence can be hard to dismiss, even for a business-minded regulator, Blanke adds. The coalition’s letter, he notes, includes 45 footnotes, pointing to medical and environmental studies, news articles, and government websites to support its conclusions.