Media coverage of legal basis for sustainability in dietary guidelines

By Michele Simon, Cross-posted from Eat Drink Politics

As I posted last week, I conducted a legal analysis to counter the claim that considerations of environmental sustainability do not belong in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The same week, the USDA and HHS announced they would exclude sustainability from the final document not yet out, despite the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s recommendations that eating less meat and more plants is best, both for our own health and that of the planet.

Below is a media round-up of coverage of my analysis.

The legal basis for sustainability in the Dietary Guidelines (my op-ed in The Hill)

The government’s new dietary guidelines ignite a huge food industry backlash (Los Angeles Times)

Burwell and Vilsack wrapped their decision in a legalistic mantle, saying that the “policy conversation about sustainability” is outside the statutory “scope” of the dietary guidelines. That position has been conclusively demolished by public health lawyer Michele Simon, who observes that the campaign against a sustainability guideline is backed by the “meat lobby.”

The Danger of Leaving Sustainability out of the Dietary Guidelines (Huffington Post)

The legal analysis, conducted by public health attorney, food policy expert and author Michele Simon, found language in the statute itself that clearly points to sustainability. In addition, the guiding principles of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, approved by Secretary Vilsack, called upon the nation to: “Develop and expand safe, effective, and sustainable agriculture and aquaculture practices to ensure availability of recommended amounts of healthy foods to all segments of the population.”

Feds Decide That Sustainability and Nutrition Don’t Mix (Take Part)

Michele Simon, a public health lawyer who works on food issues, has spent a fair amount of time reading the law and came away with a different reading of the mandate it gives HHS and USDA. In a legal analysis published Monday by a coalition of environmental groups, she argued that “the preponderance of scientific evidence” that the law says the guidelines should be based on “tell us that food production impacts our diet, and thus should be considered as part of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

But if there’s a legal basis for including sustainability in the revised guidelines, there is no legal means of forcing the point. While the law would allow for sustainability to be included, “it’s also within their discretion to NOT include it,” Simon wrote in an email Wednesday, “just like they’ve ignored science in the past, and will again, regarding the health reasons for eating less meat and more plants.” The DGAC report shows how the preponderance of scientific evidence shows that diets lower in meat are both healthier and better for the environment.

The guidelines, she also noted, are not legally binding; if they were, “we would have more legal options.” Previous revisions of the guidelines have expanded beyond “eat this, not that” guidelines, as Simon noted in her legal analysis and in an op-ed published Wednesday by The Hill. Since 2000, both food safety and physical activity, which were first included in the dietary guidelines that year, have been squarely placed in the larger conversation about diet and nutrition in the United States. But those issues, Simon said, “were not ‘controversial’ in that there was no threat” to a powerful business and lobby like the livestock industry. As such, critics see the decision to not include sustainability in the guidelines as a victory for the meat industry and other agriculture interests.

USDA, HHS: 2015 dietary guidelines won’t factor in sustainability (Food Navigator)

However, in a legal analysis released on October 5, public health attorney Michele Simon noted that the dietary guidelines already cover issues such as physical activity and food safety, which are arguably outside the realm of ‘nutritional and dietary information’. She added: “Our analysis of the law, including the Congressional intent, clearly shows that USDA and HHS would be well within its mandate to incorporate sustainability in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

The bizarre saga of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines: Continued (Marion Nestle’s Food Politics blog)

OK, but see Michele Simon’s analysis of the legal issues related to sustainability in the guidelines, and My Plate My Planet’s analysis of the comments filed on the sustainability question. “As my analysis shows, the USDA and HHS would be well within its legal authority to include sustainability. In summary:

  • A plain reading of the statute does not preclude sustainability;
  • The Congressional intent was to further a broad agenda on health;
  • Previous DGA versions included issues beyond ‘nutrition and diet’”.


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