A spat over the dietary guidelines

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is taking heat over how conflicts of interest are disclosed. The Supreme Court backs up California’s new animal welfare rules. A top FDA official calls the agency’s formula crisis response ‘less than ideal.’ Plus, key lawmakers meet with the White House on the farm bill.


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Happy Friday and welcome to Food Fix! There are a bunch of new folks here and it’s been a while since I introduced myself. I’m Helena Bottemiller Evich, a longtime reporter covering food policy in Washington, D.C. Most recently, I was a senior reporter at Politico, where I wrote about everything from Michelle Obama’s childhood obesity campaign to how farmers are adapting to climate change. 

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Today, in Food Fix: 

— The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is taking heat over conflicts of interest disclosure

— SCOTUS rules California can impose its animal welfare rules on other states

— FDA official calls infant formula response timeline ‘less than ideal’

— House and Senate ag leaders issue joint statement on farm bill 

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A spat over the dietary guidelines

The government’s process for updating federal nutrition advice — the basis for the now-defunct food pyramid and the current MyPlate — is being criticized by advocates, who argue conflicts of interest have not been adequately disclosed.

Dietary Guidelines 101: The Agriculture Department and the Department of Health and Human Services jointly craft the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are updated every five years. Ahead of each update, an advisory committee of experts is chosen to dive into the state of nutrition science. These experts then put together a massive report for USDA and HHS, which the agencies use to inform their updated recommendations. This committee is known as the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (simply DGAC to insiders), and it has a lot of influence.

The criticism: The Center for Science in the Public Interest (a consumer group) this week accused the agencies of “obscuring the potential financial conflicts of interest of the committee members” because they posted a four-page list of committee members’ collective financial relationships, with zero indication of which financial relationships involve each member. A wide range of entities have provided grants or other contracts to committee members, according to the list: disease advocacy groups like the American Diabetes Association, industry interests like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and pharmaceutical companies like Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk.

CSPI president and executive director Peter Lurie, who’s long been keenly interested in conflicts of interest on federal advisory panels (particularly for FDA, where he once worked), told me he was dumbfounded by the format.

“I have never seen a disclosure like this,” Lurie said. “It violates every standard of conflict of interest disclosure that I’m aware of. It’s a little bit like saying: ‘Do you have any needles?’ And the response is: ‘Yes, actually, we do, they’re in that haystack over there.’ It’s just extremely unhelpful.”

Lurie noted that at the beginning of FDA advisory committee meetings, for example, any conflicts for participants are disclosed for each individual “in reasonable detail.” The idea that DGAC couldn’t do something similar doesn’t make sense, he said.

The Nutrition Coalition, which has been extremely critical of the Dietary Guidelines process in recent years, also issued a press release this week expressing “surprise and disappointment” over the disclosure. The group included a statement from Gordon Guyatt, a professor at McMaster University, in which he slammed the disclosure as technically legal but against “basic standards of scientific practice.” 

“If the USDA is trying to convey the message that they have something to hide and are doing their best to hide it, they are doing an excellent job,” Guyatt said.

Strange bedfellows: The fact that CSPI and the Nutrition Coalition were both in my inbox saying virtually the same thing struck me as notable. CSPI has long been a defender of status-quo nutrition advice (think more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, less saturated fat, etc.) while the Nutrition Coalition, coming from a decidedly low-carb perspective, argues the government’s guidelines are not only deeply flawed but have fueled diet-related diseases in the U.S. 

(Side note here: The vast majority of Americans don’t follow the Dietary Guidelines, but they are still super important for nutrition messaging, as well as for federal programs like school meals.)

Committee politics: There’s always been a ton of political wrangling about who gets on DGAC and their stances on different nutrition topics. Are they pro-meat or anti-meat? Pro-dairy or a plant-based alternative stan? There’s a boatload of special interests that surround this process and they spend oodles of time and money trying to influence it, so potential conflicts of interest are important here — and the agencies in charge have been under increasing pressure to be more transparent about their process. 

In 2015, Congress asked the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine to essentially review the government’s process for crafting the guidelines. In 2017, NASEM issued several recommendations for improving the process, including a call to create clear policies on how to manage committee members’ potential conflicts of interest. 

NASEM also recommended the agencies release a list of provisional appointees, along with short bios and any known conflicts, to allow for public comment before the members are actually named. But HHS and USDA chose not to adopt this recommendation, citing privacy concerns.

Last year, an analysis published in the journal Public Health Nutrition found that 95 percent of DGAC members from the last cycle had a conflict of interest “with the food, and/or pharmaceutical industries” — and some major actors, like Kellogg, Abbott, Kraft, Mead Johnson, General Mills and Danone, “had connections with multiple members.” Research funding and membership on an advisory or executive board accounted for the majority of the conflicts documented, the paper said. (The paper was co-authored by Nina Teicholz, founder of The Nutrition Coalition.)

A word from the feds: In a joint statement, USDA and HHS said the DGAC’s list of potential conflicts of interest was something the committee voluntarily chose to disclose and it “goes above and beyond what’s required of federal advisory committees.” The two agencies “remain confident this committee will successfully conduct an independent review of the science.”

The agencies also contend that federal law limits the information that can be provided publicly about committee members and that staff put every member through “extensive vetting” before their appointment. The disclosure list is the first time a DGAC has posted this type of information publicly, they noted. This may be true, but it hasn’t satisfied critics — and it doesn’t satisfy what NASEM recommended, either.

Zooming out: One of the most common defenses I’ve heard on all this basically amounts to: there’s just not much public funding for nutrition science, which makes some level of industry funding nearly unavoidable, and that’s just the reality researchers are living in. This is a real issue, no doubt — I wrote about the dearth of federal funding a couple of years ago here with my former colleague Catherine Boudreau. Nutrition research funding is tiny compared to the scale of diet-related diseases, and that’s arguably left huge holes in our scientific knowledge. 

I asked Lurie of CSPI about this justification, and he didn’t buy it. The question of whether researchers ought to be taking industry money is different from whether or not they should note when they’ve taken it. “I understand the realities of funding. But the committee should disclose it,” he said.

“For all we know, this committee has fewer conflicts than previous ones — that seems quite possible,” Lurie added. “Instead of coming clean and disclosing that in a clear fashion, they’ve gone and sullied the entire committee.”

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SCOTUS rules California can impose its animal welfare rules on other states

The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled in favor of California in a long-running dispute over the animal welfare requirements imposed by Proposition 12, which banned the use of gestation crates in the production of most pork sold in the state.

The ruling means that California — and presumably, other states — can impose their own rules on producers if they want to sell food to consumers in the state, even if those producers are based elsewhere. It’s a big deal because in the past, federal food rules have often been deemed to preempt states’, as a way to streamline interstate commerce. In this case, however, states’ rights won out. 

The ruling itself created an unusual split on the court, with a mix of conservatives and liberals ruling in favor of California. 

As the Washington Post’s Robert Barnes noted: Justice Neil Gorsuch, “writing the majority in what boiled down to a 5-4 decision, rejected what he called a request by pork producers for the court to fashion ‘new and more aggressive constitutional restrictions on the ability of States to regulate goods sold within their borders.’

“‘While the Constitution addresses many weighty issues, the type of pork chops California merchants may sell is not on that list,’ Gorsuch wrote for a majority that included, at times, Justices Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Amy Coney Barrett.” 

The National Pork Producers Council, which challenged Prop 12 all the way to the high court, said it was “very disappointed” with the decision and was “evaluating the Court’s full opinion to understand all the implications.”

I also saw some concerned statements from other agriculture groups and some Republicans on Capitol Hill. 

But there are differences of opinion on this within ag, too: Niman Ranch, one of the very few 100 percent gestation crate-free brands of pork, supported Prop 12 and cheered the ruling. “This is a truly watershed moment for animal welfare,” general manager Chris Oliviero said in a statement Thursday. 

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FDA official calls infant formula response timeline ‘less than ideal’

The FDA’s timeline in responding to reports of infants potentially sickened by contaminated formula was “less than ideal,” Susan Mayne, director of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, acknowledged during congressional testimony on Thursday. 

During a House Oversight subcommittee hearing, Mayne was pressed multiple times on why it took the FDA several months to conduct a for-cause inspection of Abbott Nutrition’s Sturgis, Mich. plant after the agency first began receiving reports of infant illnesses.

As a refresher, the FDA received the first complaint of an infant hospitalization in September and a lengthy warning from a whistleblower about the plant in October. The whistleblower was not interviewed by FDA officials until December. When they went into the infant formula plant Jan. 31, the agency found “egregious” food safety conditions, officials later said. A sweeping recall was ordered Feb. 17, 2022. In the span of those four months, the agency received three more reports of infant illnesses, including two deaths, that were considered to be linked to the Abbott plant.

“Those timelines are less than ideal,” Mayne told lawmakers, while also repeatedly noting she doesn’t oversee the FDA’s inspectional force. “Once we got in there and we saw the conditions, all of our timelines were met very expeditiously,” she added, referring to the Abbott plant. “But I agree with you that in the months leading up to that time, that those timelines could have been more ideal.”

Mayne recently announced she is retiring at the end of this month. 

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House and Senate ag leaders issue joint statement on farm bill 

The leadership of the House and Senate agriculture committees — also known as the “four corners” — issued a statement late Thursday following a White House meeting on the farm bill with President Joe Biden and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The statement said the leaders discussed “the importance of passing a bipartisan Farm Bill this year.”

“The Agriculture Committees have a long tradition of bipartisan cooperation, and we look forward to continuing that tradition through our work on the 2023 Farm Bill,” the statement said.

Context: The fact that there was a White House meeting about the farm bill is notable, as the legislation has increasingly been sucked into the intense fight over raising the debt-ceiling. Readers of this newsletter may recall that House Republicans have been seeking to expand work requirements on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (AKA food stamps) as part of those talks — an absolute nonstarter for Senate Democrats.

The White House was supposed to host a meeting with congressional leaders on the debt ceiling today, but that has been pushed to early next week, per Reuters, as both sides begin talks about potential spending cuts.

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What I’m reading

PLEZi: Better for kids? Healthier? (Food Politics). Food policy professor and author Marion Nestle weighs in on Michelle Obama’s new food company, PLEZi. Nestle praises Obama for her work on childrens’ health but concludes that she’s not impressed with the PLEZi drinks the company has initially rolled out. 

Sweetgreen’s robotic Infinite Kitchen is finally open (Restaurant Business News). “Promising a faster and more convenient experience, Sweetgreen’s long-awaited, fully automated Infinite Kitchen restaurant made its debut on Wednesday in Naperville, Ill.,” writes Lisa Jennings. “Company officials declined to answer questions about the number of team members needed at the Infinite Kitchen, compared with traditional units. In November, the company said the technology is expected to cut labor costs in half while boosting throughput.” The piece includes a video of how it works.

Theodor Diener, who discovered the tiniest of infectious agents, dies at 102 (New York Times). “Finding something infinitesimally tiny is never easy,” writes Daniel Slotnik. “But it’s much harder when the searcher doesn’t know what to look for. Theodor Diener, a plant pathologist at the federal Agricultural Research Service, faced that problem when he began investigating spindle tuber disease, an ailment that makes potatoes scrawny and misshapen. Dr. Diener, who was 102 when he died on March 28 at his home in Beltsville, Md., worked for years to find the culprit, resulting in the discovery of the smallest known infectious agent, which he named a viroid.”

Coca-Cola trials turning hard-to-recycle plastic into bottles (Wall Street Journal). “Coca-Cola is trialing technology in Europe that turns hard-to-recycle plastic into new bottles, as part of its effort to meet its sustainability goals,” reports Dieter Holger. “The company’s biggest European bottler, Coca-Cola Europacific Partners, is funding a startup in the Netherlands that will produce food-grade recycled plastic from plastics that usually get sent to landfill or are incinerated—such as films, trays, clothing and colored packaging.”

The promises of the home “composting” machine (The New Yorker). I enjoyed this piece by Helen Rosner about her somewhat complicated feelings about the new wave of home “composting” devices — expensive appliances that break down food waste. “What a person gets from using the Mill machine, the Lomi, the FoodCycler, and their cohort is … just a feeling: the pleasurable, bourgeois satisfaction of having done the right thing without working too terribly hard at it.”

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