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Meat wins: Sustainability won’t factor into the US government’s new dietary guidelines

This post has been updated.

The US Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services have just announced that sustainability won’t be considered as a factor when it issues its influential dietary guidelines—known as DGAs—later this year, over-ruling recommendations of an expert advisory panel.

“Issues of the environment and sustainability are critically important,” said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and US Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell in a joint statement posted on each agency’s blog. “But because this is a matter of scope, we do not believe that the 2015 DGAs are the appropriate vehicle for this important policy conversation about sustainability.”

Whether or not sustainability was included as a factor in the government’s guidelines had become something of a political tug of war in recent months. The US meat industry had opposed inclusion of sustainability as a factor in the guidelines, which are considered in government food policies ranging from military meals to food stamps to school lunches. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee—appointed by the USDA and the US Department of Health and Human Services—raised eyebrows in a report this year, when in addition to suggestions about consuming less red and processed meats, it noted that such a low-meat diet was also better for the environment.

The report—issued every five years in advance of the official guidelines—called for a “[s]hift toward a greater emphasis on healthy dietary patterns and an improved environmental profile across food categories to maximize environmental sustainability.”

The decision to include sustainability drew support from academics, nutrition and health professionals and, according to one analysis of comments submitted in response to the report, the lion’s share of the members of public that weighed in. But one vocal group strongly opposed such a connection: the meat industry.

“The committee’s foray into the murky waters of sustainability is well beyond its scope and expertise. It’s akin to having a dermatologist provide recommendations about cardiac care,” wrote Barry Carpenter, president and chief executive officer, North American Meat Institute, in response to the committee’s introduction of sustainability.

Those who support inclusion of sustainability stressed that health concerns should still restrict Americans’ meat consumption. “While disappointing, I can appreciate that the agencies did not want the issue to distract from the very important nutrition advice to eat less red and processed meat and more plant foods,” says Michele Simon of the decision not to include sustainability in the guidelines. Simon represents a coalition of more than 20-plant based food companies that strongly supported the report’s advice.

The DGAC wasn’t the first organization to suggest to link red meat production to issues surrounding environmental sustainability. In October 2012, for example, the United Nations issued a report saying, “Agriculture, through meat production, is one of the main contributors to the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and thus has a potential impact on climate change.” It identified the US as being the country with the largest per capita meat supply.

This post was updated to include the statement also found on the HHS website.

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