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Sisyphus for cowboys: How the beef industry found itself fighting an uphill battle in human nutrition

Remember Sisyphus from Greek mythology? He was condemned to roll a rock uphill for eternity. Are cowboys the same?

Steve Dittmer

March 13, 2019

8 Min Read
Sisyphus for cowboys:
adventtr / Getty Images

Alright, a quiz question. Who sets the nutrition standard for the school lunch program, for the military services, other government feeding programs, the advice that doctors and nutritionists in private practice give patients and the stories in women’s magazines, food magazines and on grocery labels?

Answer: the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), revised and issued every five years by USDA and HHS.

Next question: What government institution has been telling Americans for nearly 40 years to eat less red meat and dairy products, in order to protect their heart health, avoid cancer and keep their weight down? Well, that would be the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Yes, that is the source of the conventional “wisdom,” that “everybody knows” that beef is bad for you.  You younger producers grew up in a time when that attitude was a given. We older folks never heard such advice when we were younger and neither did our parents. 

It was only in the late 1970s, when an unholy mixture of bad science, uncritical reviews of statistics and politics ran rampant through Congress responding to a medical community looking for answers that this attitude became the acceptable answer.

Actually, the genesis for exploring heart disease was President Dwight Eisenhower’s heart attack in 1955. It was not a common ailment in those days and everyone wanted to know all about it. 

Related:Nina Teicholz: 5 things you need to know about the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

A researcher, Dr. Ancel Keys, thought he had the answer for the cause. Circumstances and his hunger for self-promotion drove him to a position in the early 1960s to promote his theories when medicine and the public were hungry for answers. 

Keys was the origin of the “eating animal products” is bad for you theory we’ve been fighting ever since.  It put cattlemen in the position of Sisyphus, constantly rolling that rock up the hill, only for doctors and nutritionists—sanctioned by the authority of the U.S. government—to push it back down on them.

While the advice after Eisenhower’s heart attack was to cut back on animal fat and cholesterol, avoid stress and stop smoking, most people only heeded the first piece of advice. Nearly glossed over was that for most of his life, Eisenhower smoked three to four packs of cigarettes a day, lighting the next one from the old one. It got him through the stress of being Supreme Commander during the war but caught up with him as president.

You might have followed the big fight in 2015, when livestock groups and nutritionists and health experts who favored science over bias and tradition, got wind that the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) was considering completely dropping “lean meat” from its list of recommended foods. The battle was over high carbohydrate-low animal product diets and more and more evidence that such diets were major contributors to our obesity and diabetic problems.

Related:Nina Teicholz debunks “What the Health” documentary

In October 2015, the House Agriculture Committee held a hearing on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  Comments from the committee members reflected both the fury of some constituents and the Guidelines’ lack of credibility leading to ignoring them from others.

“You certainly did not use some of the most recent peer-reviewed and published nutrition and diet-related science. It was not even considered by the advisory committee and not even included in the evidence-based library…” D. Scott (D-GA).

“You have lost your credibility with a lot of people…” C. Peterson (D-MN).

“There’s a belief, then, that the people on the committee entered with a bias in some way, shape or form and were searching for the science to back up what they already believed to be true…” A. Scott (R-GA).

“As a physician…I’m a little bit concerned… 52% of Americans are pre-diabetic or diabetic, and yet, the dietary recommendations that, as I understand it, are not really appropriate for that…” D. Benishek (R-MI).

Once the 2015 Guidelines were released, allowing some lean meat but still bending over backward with carbs—fruits, vegetables and grains galore—the investigative journalist who discovered that the vilification of animal foods was never based on good science, Nina Teicholz, went to work. 

In a thoroughly researched peer-reviewed article for The BMJ, formerly known as the British Medical Journal, she went through the expert report for the 2015 Guidelines, compared it to the current, best research available and thoroughly torched the idea that our Guidelines are the “gold standard” as commonly thought.

Outraged, the Guidelines defenders demanded a retraction from The BMJ. Instead, the editors had a review committee go through every claim against Teicholz’ article—and could find no error that reversed any of its serious allegations. Each and every claim about the Guidelines being based on weak science was true.

Under the system to date, USDA staff select the research studies to be included in the Nutrition Evidence Library (NEL) that the DGAC used for reference. After decades of exposure to the high-carb, low-animal fat theory, their bias had crept into the NEL, handicapping the deliberations from the start.

Then, after the DGAC members were selected, they decided on the topics to be discussed. The selection process for the members had not properly accounted for bias, for conflicts of interest, background and published research. Not surprisingly, the most aggressive, best known progenitors of the high-carb, low animal products status quo dominated the committee and proceedings, leaving contrary research underrepresented or totally ignore.

Incredibly—and unknown to most of the public—the Nutrition Coalition noted that 11 of the 14 members of the last DGAC were vegetarians.

Teicholt’s revelations created controversy in the medical and nutritional world. The upshot of all this furor and controversy was that Congress commissioned a million-dollar study by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) to evaluate the process that creates the Guidelines.

The overall goal of the study, as many careful, professional, objective nutritionists and healthcare professionals saw it, was to tie the guidelines to the best, most recent science—all the science, not just selected, cherry-picked bits.

The NASEM recommended separating the existing functions of the current system to get a broader scope of research and a more diverse DGAC. Separate committees would monitor and maintain the NEL and suggest broad topics most necessary for public health. Another technical group would evaluate the studies in detail and a third group would interpret the scientific evidence and draw conclusions. The last group would be writers who would write evidence-based guidelines, explaining the rationale in the most transparent fashion possible.

In this scenario, the third group above would be roughly the DGAC of today, with a narrower scope of responsibility and much more scrutiny regarding bias, professional and research background and financial disclosures. 

Under the NASEM’s recommendations, an outside third party would sift through the nominations and make primary and secondary slates of candidates. The agencies would review and make preliminary appointments. The provisional committee would then be posted and a comment period conducted.  The agencies would review the comments and the conflicts of interest and bias involved and finalize the appointments.

So what did USDA and HHS do with the carefully reasoned million-dollar recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine? Boy oh boy, I wish I had better news.

As of this writing, the section on process has been totally ignored, or if not, they haven’t told anyone.

As for the recommendations on the committee member selection, according to the Nutrition Coalition, key recommendations were flatly rejected. Explicit disclosure of financial and non-financial biases and conflicts of interest was rejected. For example, in 2015, the review of saturated fats was led by two researchers with long histories of condemning these fats, the Coalition noted.

The suggestion of posting the provisional committee for comment was rejected. Even just developing a management plan for addressing biases and conflicts of interest was rejected. It then follows that documenting how conflicts of interest were managed was rejected.

So how did the process of selecting DGAC members go this year?

From what I can tell, at best it is a mixed bag. The Nutrition Coalition—a select group of nutritionists and scientists passionately devoted to evidence-based science—nominated like candidates and got nary a nomination accepted. NCBA had to be satisfied with two nominations accepted. 

At least two of 2015’s members were re-accepted for second and third terms. Politico reported that one accepted nominee had published on the benefits of a low-carb diet and was nominated by the Atkins company.

Some groups don’t release the names of their nominees and most of the names are mysteries to most folks. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics had four nominees. This group, the Nutrition Coalition noted, has historically placed most of the members on the DGAC, meaning that their positions and those of the DGAC have been very close. The group can be expected to defend DGAC past positions, as near architects of the Guidelines.

Overall, for something as important to American citizens and the food industry, that a solid, scientific, logical report as this should be treated as chaff by USDA and HHS is bitterly disappointing.

Editor's Note: Those interested in a deep dive into how the war against animal food products has been waged for over 40 years, should read Teicholz’s definitive story of science, pseudoscience, politics and PR of our nutrition policy: “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet,” Simon and Schuster, New York, 2014. 

About the Author(s)

Steve Dittmer

Steve Dittmer is a longtime industry commentator and principal of the Agribusiness Freedom Foundation.

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