Food Companies at the Table in Trump Administration’s Dietary Guidelines Committee

April 1, 2019 | 11:02 am
Derrick Z. Jackson

UPDATE 4/17/19: A sentence in the post has been changed to remove any unintentional suggestion that lobbying efforts by Atkins Nutritionals and The Nutrition Coalition have been coordinated.

Putting a new twist on the term “pork-barrel politics,” the National Pork Board, along with other of food industry and infant formula lobbyists, may be maneuvering into a position of undue influence in the Trump administration’s five-year update of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which is leading the dietary guideline process, recently announced a new 20-member expert committee tasked with reviewing the latest science and recommending how the federal government should advise us to eat for good health from 2020 to 2025. More than half the committee members come with either clear strings to industry-funded research or questionable memberships in industry-funded advocacy groups and foundations.

According to those familiar with the process, such ties are more or less par for the course. But the potential for industry influence looms large this time around, as the committee is overseen by an administration that has proven particularly friendly to industry interests.

To be sure, industry ties among committee members have evolved under both Democratic and Republican administrations as government research funding has decreased to now historic lows. In a February New York Times op-ed, former USDA Secretary Dan Glickman and former FDA Commissioner David Kessler called for the establishment of a new National Institute of Nutrition. They noted that total taxpayer investment in this field across all federal agencies totals just $1.5 billion annually—an amount dwarfed by the $40 billion a year spent on candy and the estimated $1.72 trillion annual total health care and economic costs of a nation where a leading disqualifier for military service was obesity.

While it is of course hoped that researchers can maintain integrity regardless of funding source, these are circumstances that could threaten independent science, and they create a need for additional vigilance in ensuring their work continues to prioritize the public good. This is particularly important on food issues as many companies, such as makers of sugary soda and cereals, have taken a page out of Big Tobacco’s strategy for crafting a benign and benevolent image for themselves by sponsoring everything from professional sports teams to food banks, youth groups and physician organizations.

Will agribusiness dollars influence the committee?

The Trump administration’s ties to industry are no secret. Agribusiness, for instance, gave $4.6 million to the Trump campaign, nearly double the amount it contributed to runner-up Hillary Clinton. In the 2017-2018 election cycle, the National Restaurant Association, McDonalds and Coca-Cola have contributed nearly $1 million each to congressional candidates, giving a respective 74 percent, 64 percent and 54 percent to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The National Confectioners Association, the lobbying arm of the candy industry, gave 60 percent of its contributions to Republican causes and the parent companies of restaurants such as Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba’s Italian Grill, Flemings Prime Steakhouse, Waffle House and the Association of KFC Franchisees gave almost all of their money to Republican or conservative groups.

In announcing the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) in February, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue (who must sign off on the final guidelines, along with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar) reportedly said, “You ought to have professionals on either end of the spectrum—both from the plant-based and meat-based side of the equation—making recommendations.” That grossly mischaracterizes the charge of the committee: to review current evidence and present independent, science-based recommendations to the Secretaries. A balanced committee should imply a diversity of expertise in nutrition and health sciences—not equal representation of the financial interests of the food industry and the science itself. Perdue’s actions over the last two years reinforce that his idea of “balance” involves weaving Big Ag deeper into the folds of public policy.

More meat and fewer carbs, with a side of science

The 2015 DGAC presented strong evidence to consider major adjustments to the American way of eating, diet, writing: “sustainable diets were that a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet.” That resulted in fierce blowback from Big Ag and the ultimate rejection of sustainability as a guiding dietary principle by the USDA and HHS.

Given that fight in a White House where First Lady Michelle Obama made urban gardening a signature mission, it is difficult to see the industry-ridden Trump administration embracing the science on plant-based diets. The 2020 committee contains several scientists whose industry-funded research just happens to focus on short-term benefits of meat, low-carbohydrate diets and commercial diet programs. This is despite an abundance of research documenting the long-term health impacts of high meat intake, such as heart disease and cancer.

For example, the National Pork Board funded 2012 research by new DGAC member and Purdue University researcher Dr. Heather Leidy (then at the University of Missouri) and colleagues. The study found long-term health benefits of pork-based breakfasts, compared to adolescents who normally skip breakfast. The Pork Board publicized the study and took the findings one step further, summarizing the results by saying:

“The study findings provide the pork industry with novel, practical evidence supporting the role of a protein-rich breakfast including high-quality lean pork as a key component of daily healthy eating, leading to improved body weight management in young people.” Pork Board President Conley Nelson went so far as to say, “Parents can feel good about including pork as part of the morning meal.”

But despite the industry’s long-running campaign claiming pork is the healthy “other white meat,” many Americans are still springing for pork in its unhealthiest form—bacon. Between 2011 and 2018, the number of Americans who consume at least 3 pounds of bacon a year rose by nearly 50 percent, from 44 million to 63 million. As the Wall Street Journal astutely noted in 2017: “With the rise of low-carb high-protein diets, fatty bacon made a comeback.”

Of course, low-carb is the diet of choice for Atkins Nutritionals, the company that nominated DGAC member Dr. Lydia Bazzano. Her research on the short-term effects of low-carbohydrate diets on weight loss and cardiovascular risk factors has helped to buoy its popularity. Atkins Nutritionals has lobbied Capitol Hill and the USDA on the guidelines, as have groups like The Nutrition Coalition, which questions the dangers of saturated fats and red meat and has praised the appointment to the 2020 committee of Bazzano and Leidy.

An example of how the industry takes advantage of the lack of public research funding to position itself as a center of academic gravitas are events such as the 2007 and 2013 “Protein Summit.” The latter of the summits, meant “to explore the misperception that Americans over-consume protein,” was sponsored by the National Pork Board, the Beef Checkoff, The Egg Nutrition Center, Hillshire Brands, the Dairy Research Institute and the Global Dairy Platform. Leidy and another new member of the DGAC, Purdue colleague Dr. Richard Mattes, were on the steering committee and yet another new DGAC member, Teresa Davis of Baylor University, was a speaker. She has received speaking honoraria from both the Beef Checkoff and Abbott Nutrition.

Finagling for formula and food replacements

Some notable companies at the DGAC table aren’t involved in producing food at all, but rather pharmaceuticals and supplements—including infant formula and diet replacement programs. This is particularly noteworthy because the 2020 Dietary Guidelines will be the first that will include recommendations for pregnant women and children from birth through 24 months of age. From a public health perspective, this is an important advancement in providing information to families with young children; for makers of infant formula, this is also an opportunity to market their products.

Though infant feeding is a personal choice, complicated by any number of challenges, there is strong scientific consensus that breastmilk—when it’s an option—provides the best nutrition for infants and added health benefits for mothers. Yet the United States stunned the global community last summer by refusing to sign a United Nations resolution encouraging breastfeeding, raising alarm about the Trump administration’s disregard for population health and foreshadowing the tone it might take with the dietary guidelines.

In the infant formula arena, Dr. Sharon Donovan has participated in studies funded by and edited informational materials for infant formula company Mead Johnson. The same company claims a major relationship with Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, where physician-in-chief Ronald Kleinman is also on the DGAC. As part of an Obama administration initiative to understand human microorganisms (microbiome), Massachusetts General Hospital and Mead Johnson partnered on the pediatric wing of the research. “[Mass General] and Mead Johnson enjoy a long history of collaboration on projects that focus on pediatric nutrition,” Kleinman said in a hospital press release.

But elsewhere in the world, the relationship between industry and researchers seems far less harmonious, with baby formula makers accused of unscrupulous business tactics in promoting formula over breastfeeding. A 2013 Reuters report found that Mead Johnson, Nestle, Pfizer’s Wyeth unit and Danone all used high pressure marketing tactics, including bribes, to push formula. In 2015, Mead Johnson agreed to pay a $12 million fine after the Securities and Exchange Commission found that the company made improper payments to health professionals in China to recommend formula to new or expectant mothers.

As a result of such activities and after an outcry over sponsorship of several infant formula companies at its first international conference in the Middle East and Africa, the Royal College of Pediatrics in the United Kingdom recently suspended its ties with infant formula makers. The Guardian newspaper last year reported that Nestle, Mead Johnson, Abbott and Wyeth (now owned by Nestle), engaged in predatory and illegal practices to push formula on impoverished communities in the Philippines.

There is some degree of overlap between companies that produce infant formula and those that produce food replacements and weight loss supplements, and companies of both stripes have connections to the DGAC. Among the new DGAC members is Dr. Jamy Ard, medical director of Optifast, Nestle’s line of full-meal replacement shakes. Dr. Ard has led Nestle-funded trials showing that Optifast diets lead to more weight loss than food-based diets. (A 2015 study by John Hopkins University researchers found that very few commercial weight-loss programs demonstrate long-term benefits, and Optifast is not one of them).

Dr. Steven Heymsfield of Louisiana State University, nominated by the American Beverage Association, has been on the scientific advisory board of Medifast, another producer of weight loss product—also discredited by Johns Hopkins University. Heymsfield is also the current president of The Obesity Society, which has been criticized for its connections to corporate funders such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, and hosting “engagement councils” with members representing those PepsiCo, Monsanto, Nestle, Dr. Pepper, Atkins, Mars, and Campbell’s Soup. Last year, Heymsfield and his society issued a press release casting doubt on the efficacy of taxing sugar-sweetened beverages, even though taxes have helped cut tobacco consumption. Louisiana State University received more funding from Coca Cola than any other single organization, nearly $7 million between 2010 and 2015.

In a February press release, the Obesity Society boasted that Heymsfield, council member Ard and members Mattes, Elizabeth Mayer-Davis of the University of North Carolina and Elsie Taveras of Massachusetts General Hospital were all named to the DGAC.

A web of industry connections

Some industry connections are far less visible, including those fostered through innocuously-named groups like the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI). Far from being a staid academic institution, ILSI and similar groups are part of a far-reaching web of agricultural companies and mass-scale food producers who, despite many controversies over the health value of their products and impact on the environment in production, have forged “partnerships” with leading academics and renowned hospitals. This allows them to veil themselves in “science” and present themselves as benevolent forces “feeding the world.”

ILSI claims membership of a full quarter of the DGAC: Dr. Teresa Davis, Dr. Kleinman, Dr. Donovan, Dr. Regan Bailey of Purdue and Dr. Barbara Schneeman, a former US Food and Drug Administration director of nutrition and labeling. Davis, Donovan and Bailey are scientific advisors to ILSI North America and Schneeman is a government liaison. Kleinman is on the board of trustees of ILSI’s Research Foundation. (Of additional note is that Schneeman, who was nominated by the American Beverage Association, will serve as chair of the DGAC, and Kleinman will serve as vice chair).

ILSI North America claims to “provide a neutral forum that collaboratively engages scientists from the public and private sectors to identify and resolve scientific issues around food safety and nutrition for the benefit of public health” In actuality, ILSI was founded in 1978 by a Coca-Cola executive “to unite the food industry” and has repeatedly been exposed as trying to manipulate science on behalf of more than three dozen companies. many of which push pesticides in food production and sugar, salt and unhealthy fats into the manufacture of candy, soda, cereals and processed foods.

In 2017, an ILSI-funded study made its way into the Annals of Internal Medicine, claiming that sugar intake guidelines are based on “low-quality evidence” and are thus “untrustworthy.” The untrustworthiness of ILSI itself was most recently exposed in January in a study in the Journal of Public Health Policy.

A Harvard University professor found that the ILSI helped redirect China’s chronic disease science from a paradigm that focused on diet, to Coke’s narrative that blames lack of exercise instead of sugary drinks for obesity, “a claim few public experts accept,” study author Susan Greenhalgh wrote.

This web gets downright incestuous as many of the same companies flood the zone of influence by being members of other organizations with feel-good, anti-poverty names such as the Global Child Nutrition Foundation (GCNF), Feeding Tomorrow (FT), Seeding the Future (STF) and the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC)

For instance, Kleinman, known for his research on infant nutrition, is president of the board of directors for the Global Child Nutrition Foundation (CNF), which claims DowDuPont, the American Beverage Association, Coke, General Mills, Pepsi, Kraft Heinz and the National Restaurant Association among its sponsors or in its network. Most of those groups also are members of the ILSI. Bios for federal publications and speaking appearances also say Kleinman has been a consultant to Burger King and General Mills, the latter of which supports all five mentioned industry-backed foundations and institutes. A dozen companies, including Coca-Cola, Abbott Nutrition, Hershey, PepsiCo, and DuPont have multiple memberships.

The IFIC’s foundation claims Bailey among its trustees. Feeding Tomorrow claims Schneeman as a trustee. A UCS report found that IFIC, as well as IFIC member General Mills, conducted studies that tried to avoid the question of “added sugars” to foods.

Setting the table for the DGAC’s work

Though not unusual, the deep reach of the food industry’s tendrils into the newly formed DGAC may prove particularly problematic in the context of Secretary Perdue’s running of USDA. As a UCS report lays out, he has stacked his department with executives and lobbyists from the world of pesticides, corn syrup and junk food and sided with Big Pork over small farmers and Big Dairy and others over small people (children).

That is the department that the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is ultimately reporting to. For all that Perdue promises the process will be “transparent and data-driven,” his actions will speak louder than words. The pressure on this committee to produce science in the public’s best interest increases almost daily with the current administration’s general attack on laws protecting the nation’s health.

The scientific advisory committee of the Environmental Protection Agency, run by former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, is now questioning prior science linking particulate matter in air pollution to poor health. In a rebuttal of the process emerging under Wheeler, published in the journal Science, Gretchen Goldman of the Union of Concerned Scientists and Francesca Dominici of Harvard University’s School of Public Health, wrote that substantial EPA-backed research has found “strong evidence of increased risk of mortality at levels well below the safety standards for particulate matter.” Loosening the standards would be dangerous as 23 million Americans live in areas that exceed particulate matter standards.

In light of these anti-science actions, it makes it all the more important for Americans to demand the Trump administration not twist science to the will of industry. Federal science advisory committees should represent the first line of defense of the nation’s health, not the advance wave of pollution and poor diets.

About the author

More from Derrick

Derrick Z. Jackson is a UCS Fellow in climate and energy and the Center for Science and Democracy. Formerly of the Boston Globe and Newsday, Jackson is a Pulitzer Prize and National Headliners finalist, a 2021 Scripps Howard opinion winner, and a respective 11-time, 4-time and 2-time winner from the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and the Education Writers Association.