In a mirror image of a debate that occurred in Australia three years ago, a Federal Government committee in the United States is urging consumers to cut red meat consumption on the grounds that livestock production is bad for the environment.
A 14-member Federal advisory committee established by the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services last week released a much-anticipated report recommending how US national dietary guidelines should take shape for the next five years.
A principle recommendation was that families should reduce their consumption of red and processed meats, based on the committee’s view that a higher intake of red and processed meats is detrimental to health. The report also tied consumption of red and processed meat to increased risk of colon cancer and type 2 diabetes.
The report further added that eating more plant-based foods and fewer animal-based foods would be better for the environment.
“Current evidence shows that the average US diet has a larger environmental impact in terms of increased greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use and energy use,” the report states.
“Consistent evidence indicates that, in general, a dietary pattern that is higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with lesser environmental impact than is the current average US diet.”
If adopted, the report’s suggestions could influence consumer decisions and will also be used to guide federal nutrition policy, which includes the $16 billion school lunch program.
The committee also urges policy makers at local, state and federal level to consider pulling economic and pricing levers, such as higher taxes on non-recommended products, to see that its suggestions are followed.
“Taxation on higher sugar-and sodium-containing foods may encourage consumers to reduce consumption and revenues generated could support health promotion efforts,” the report reads.
The 2015 committee’s recommendations contrast with the 2010 committee’s report, which encouraged Americans to eat meat in moderation.
Report ‘goes too far with too little evidence’
The report has sparked a strong reaction from US meat industry groups, which say it does not provide an accurate picture of the role red meat plays in a healthy diet, and goes too far in its recommendations with too little scientific evidence.
“The protein foods category, which includes meat, is the only category currently consumed within the current guidelines, and it is misleading to conclude that a healthy dietary pattern should be lower in red meat,” said National Cattlemen’s Beef Association dietician Shalene McNeill (See the NCBA’s full response here).
“For all the data that links red and processed meats to colon cancer, there also exists evidence to the contrary,” North American Meat Institute (NAMI) vice president, scientific affairs, Betsy Booren told US media in response to the report.
Of particular concern to the red meat sector is that a committee of nutritional academics is making potentially far-reaching recommendations on issues of environmental sustainability that are well outside their area of expertise.
“The Committee’s foray into the murky waters of sustainability is well beyond its scope and expertise,” North American Meat Institute President and CEO Barry Carpenter said.
‘It’s akin to having a dermatologist provide recommendations about cardiac care’
“It’s akin to having a dermatologist provide recommendations about cardiac care.”
American Beverage Association spokesperson Chris Gindlesperger told US news service Politico that it appeared the committee was advancing a predetermined agenda rather than one based on the preponderance of scientific evidence.
“Instead of following its charge of developing nutrition recommendations based on clear scientific evidence, the committee spent significant time posturing its personal perspectives and advocating for public policies such as taxes and restrictions on foods and beverages,” Mr Gindlesperger said.
Dr Richard Thorpe, Texas medical doctor and cattle producer, said the key to a healthy lifestyle is building a balanced diet around the healthy foods you enjoy eating, coupled with physical activity.
“It is absurd for the Advisory Committee to suggest that Americans should eat less red meat and focus so heavily on plant-based diets,” Dr Thorpe said in a NCBA media statement.
“The American diet is already 70 percent plant based and to further emphasise plant-based diets will continue to have unintended consequences. The Advisory Committee got it wrong in the ‘80s advising a diet high in carbs, and look at what that got us – an obesity problem. My colleagues and I commonly encourage people to include lean beef more often for their health, not less.”
NAMI president Barry Carpenter said it was also wrong for the committee to generalise about an entire category of foods.
“Processed meat and poultry products are diverse and include low-fat, low- sodium, gluten-free, natural, organic, kosher, halal and regular formulations, along with countless flavors and styles,” he said.
He also pointed to new research was released in late 2014 which looked at the issue of food sustainability in a new way.
Instead of analysing the carbon footprint on similar equal amounts of different foods, researchers suggested that the total nutrition provided by those equal amounts must also be considered. Ten pounds of beef or pork provide more complete nutrition when consumed than 10 pounds of rice or broccoli.
Australia’s experience a ‘win for common sense’
The debate mirrors a similar one that occurred in Australia in 2011, when the National Health and Medical Research Council suggested that national dietary guidelines in Australia be adjusted to recommend lower red meat consumption based on environmental sustainability concerns.
Various groups including the National Farmers Federation said the NHMRC was working far outside its charter to be making claims based on the possible environmental impacts of beef consumption.
The response prompted the NHMRC to remove criteria pertaining to environmental sustainability from the dietary guidelines it ultimately released.
At the time NFF president Jock Laurie lauded the move as a win for common sense.
“We support healthy eating and the development of dietary guidelines, as long as they are based on nutrition and diet needs or health concerns, not on environmental sustainability,” Mr Laurie said.
“While environmental sustainability is obviously critically important to farmers and to agriculture, we don’t believe it is the right criteria on which to base decisions about what we eat. There are already many guidelines that determine the best way for agriculture to produce food for the future.”
The Australian dietary guidelines in their current form suggest adult men consider reducing their red meat intake for health reasons, but suggest that women may benefit from eating more meat.
Official guidelines to be adopted later this year
In the US, the USDA and the Department of Agriculture and Health and Human Services will decide whether to adopt the recommendations for the next five-year national dietary guidelines later this year.
Beef and pork industry leaders are reported to be lobbying Congress for an extension of the report’s comment period from 45 days to 120.
They say the additional time is needed to investigate the studies relied upon by the 14-member panel to draw its conclusions.