February 20, 2024

Almost half of a federal government panel that helps develop US nutritional guidelines has significant ties to big agriculture, ultra-processed food companies, pharmaceutical companies and other corporate organizations with a significant stake in the process’s outcome.

The revelation is part of a new report from US Right to Know, a government transparency group that looked for ties to corporate interests among the 20-member panel of food and nutrition experts that makes recommendations for updating the US government’s official dietary guidelines.

It found nine members had ties to Nestlé, Pfizer, Coca-Cola, the National Egg Board and other prominent food lobby groups, among others. The findings raise questions about whether the panel is looking out for Americans’ health or corporate profits, and “erodes confidence in dietary guidelines”, said Gary Ruskin of US Right to Know.

“Millions of Americans’ lives are affected by this report and it’s crucial that the report tell the truth to American people and it’s not degraded into another sales pitch for big food and big pharma,” he said.

The panel, called the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DAGC), makes the recommendations to the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department Of Health and Human Services (HHS). The guidelines are considered the “gold standard” for dietary advice in the US and around the world, and influence which foods are served in institutional settings such as schools, hospitals and military facilities.

They inform how healthcare professionals and nutritionists treat people, and influence how federal food aid is distributed, nutrition labeling, and how food products are formulated.

“The guidelines affect the entire US food system quite strongly, “ Ruskin said.

The agriculture and health departments did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

US Right to Know scoured public records dating back five years for conflicts of interest among the 20 panel members. In addition to the nine it found with “high-risk conflicts of interest” and connections to the food and drug industry, it found four more members who have possible conflicts of interest. It applauded the agencies for appointing seven members who did not appear to have any conflicts.

At least four panelists have connections to at least two companies each among Abbott, Novo Nordisk, the National Dairy Council, Eli Lilly and Weight Watchers International. One panel member has received about $240,000 in grant funding from Eli Lilly.

Industry attempts to place allies on advisory panels such as the dietary committee are not new. US Right to Know has co-authored 15 peer-reviewed studies revealing how the food and pharmaceutical industries attempt to shape public opinion, scientific research and government policy.

Earlier this year, it detailed how industry-linked groups appear to have influenced the World Health Organization’s decision to downplay cancer risks posed by aspartame.

“The last thing that a food or pharmaceutical company wants to have is a federal agency that says ‘Don’t buy this stuff, don’t buy those products,’” Raskin said. “That could potentially be a mortal threat to companies’ profit stream. So they are extremely attuned and sensitive to that possibility, and lobby in lots of ways to make sure that never happens.”

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The revelation comes amid US public health crises related to diabetes, obesity and other problems that are in part caused by the kind of ultra-processed products and unhealthy foods produced by some of the companies that have relationships with panel members.

The report notes how the USDA and HHS earlier this year for the first time issued “disclosures” of conflicts of interest among its panel members for the 2025 dietary guidelines. The disclosures were a response to pressure from public health advocates and the Republican senator Chuck Grassley, who Ruskin said sent a letter to the agencies urging them to be transparent about panel members’ potential conflicts of interest.

But the disclosures only covered the last year, were aggregated and did not identify each individual member’s conflicts, and Ruskin characterized the disclosures as “an affront to the public”.

The new report aims to “fill in the gaps” left by the government’s vague disclosures.

The agriculture and health departments can overrule the panel’s recommendations and has done so in the past, and Congress has also gotten involved. US Right to Know made a range of recommendations, among them a requirement for stronger disclosures, notification of appointees prior to appointment and an expansion of the Physician Payments Sunshine Act – which requires doctors to report money received from drug companies – to cover the nutrition field.

The easiest step, however, would be for the agencies not to appoint people with high-risk conflicts of interest.

“This is an avoidable problem,” Ruskin said. “It would be far better for public health if they picked experts with no conflict of interest. They can do that but they don’t.”

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