By Sarah Reinhardt, Union of Concerned Scientists
The Trump administration is now laying the foundation for the next quinquennial (five-year) makeover of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and the public health community is taking notice.
These guidelines are the cornerstone of the food and nutrition programs that help protect our most vulnerable populations—including millions of kids, seniors, and low-income families—from hunger and malnutrition, and provide the public with information about what makes a healthy diet. But the Trump administration’s record of sidelining science and catering to industry interests doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that leading government agencies are prepared to prioritize public health. That’s why more than 200 public health experts from 42 states have signed onto a letter asking administration officials to keep science at the center of the dietary guidelines process.
Ensuring science is the main ingredient of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines
In the coming months, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are expected to announce the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a panel of up to 20 experts that will be charged with developing the nation’s next set of science-based nutrition guidelines. This committee is typically made up of experts with combined decades of experience in nutrition, medicine, and public health research. (Take a look at past committee membership—if nutrition science were a sport, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee would be its dream team). And, with some notable exceptions, the scientific recommendations made by this committee form the basis of the final dietary guidelines issued by the USDA and HHS.
But the political circumstances and cast of characters surrounding the development of the next Dietary Guidelines aren’t necessarily typical. Here are a few of the key reasons public health experts are paying close attention to this process—and urging the agencies to keep science at its center:
1. The Trump administration has a poor track record when it comes to pursuing evidence-based policymaking and relying on scientific expertise.
The process to develop the dietary guidelines has historically been rigorous and evidence-based, bolstered by the advisory committee’s outstanding credentials and the expertise of dedicated career staff.
Yet there are dozens of documented examples of the current administration disregarding data, silencing scientists, and compromising scientific integrity in policymaking—which has frequently extended to scientific advisory committees. In a January 2018 report, UCS analyzed 73 science advisory committees across six federal departments and agencies (not including the USDA and HHS) during the administration’s first year. The report found that membership on these advisory committees had decreased, and the committees met less often than in any year since the government started tracking in 1997—nearly two-thirds of them met less often than their own charters specified.
2. USDA leadership in food and nutrition lacks scientific expertise, and the department’s existing expertise has been marginalized.
The Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services (FNCS) at the USDA, who plays a lead role in overseeing the 2020 Dietary Guidelines, has yet to be appointed. Currently serving as the Acting Deputy Undersecretary for FNCS is Brandon Lipps, Administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). With a background in agriculture, applied economics, and law, Lipps lacks any education or experience in public health or nutrition science—making him poorly qualified to oversee the process that will produce the nation’s next dietary guidelines. And though highly qualified career staff have retained positions within the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP), the recent reorganization implemented by the administration has placed CNPP under the direction of FNS—potentially compromising its ability to independently review the advisory committee’s report.
3. Other USDA appointments indicate that the food industry—with heightened incentive to influence the 2020 DGAs—has improper access to the process.
To be clear, food companies and trade associations have long had interest in shaping dietary guidelines to favor their products. But for the first time, the guidelines will include key nutrition recommendations for pregnant women and infants from birth through 24 months—providing critical information to health professionals and food service providers, and inadvertently offering a major market opportunity for makers of children’s foods, sugar-sweetened beverages, and infant formula.
And industry need not rely solely on influencing the development of the dietary guidelines from the outside. The appointments of deeply-conflicted individuals to influential positions in the USDA may give the industry unprecedented backdoor access to the process. Most notably, in July 2017, Kailee Tkacz—who until 2017 lobbied for corn syrup and snack food manufacturers—joined the USDA to work on the update of the DGAs. Tkacz was issued an ethics waiver contending that her participation in these issues at the USDA “is in the public interest”—though she has no training in science, public health, or nutrition, and has previously lobbied for two firms that have attempted to weaken federal recommendations on added sugar.
The agencies are expected to announce the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee as soon as this month, or early in the new year. The committee will then begin its work to develop the scientific report that should serve as a blueprint for the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. To the agencies’ credit, there will be ample opportunity for stakeholders—aka, all of us who eat—to get involved throughout the process: according to the USDA, there will be a total of five scientific advisory committee meetings open to the public, accompanied by requests for public comment. In the meantime, you can learn more by reading some of the Frequently Asked Questions on the USDA website, or checking out our website.