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Health or Lobbying? Experts Say U.S. Gov't Caves to Meat Industry in New Dietary Guidelines

January 14, 2016
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Lawrence Gostin

university professor and faculty director at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University. He is also the director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on Public Health Law.

Health and environmental experts are accusing the Obama administration of caving to the meat industry in its new dietary guidelines. While the guidelines recommend consuming less sugar, they do not recommend eating less meat. This comes after an intensive lobbying campaign by the meat industry and despite recent findings by the World Health Organization that processed meat can cause cancer. We are joined by Lawrence Gostin, university professor and faculty director at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University and director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on Public Health Law.


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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Health and environmental experts are accusing the Obama administration of caving in to the meat industry in its new dietary guidelines—the federal nutrition standards for public programs, school lunches, food labels and more. While the guidelines recommend consuming less sugar, they do not recommend eating less meat. This comes despite recent findings by the World Health Organization that processed meat causes cancer. Advocates are also condemning the government for dropping a proposed recommendation from the federal advisory committee that people eat an environmentally sustainable diet. This, too, would have led to recommendations to curb meat consumption, since meat production uses far more water than other forms of food production.

AMY GOODMAN: But their proposal came up against heavy lobbying from the meat industry. Groups, including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Pork Producers Council, the North American Meat Institute, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to remove the committee’s call to eat less meat. And their victory has a shelf life at least five years, with the next set of dietary guidelines not due out ’til 2021.

For more, we go to Lawrence Gostin, university professor and faculty director at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University. He’s also director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on Public Health Law.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Gostin. Can you start off by saying what is the World Health Organization’s and scientific community’s opinions about consumption of meat?

LAWRENCE GOSTIN: Well, certainly, processed meats, like hams, hot dogs, cold cuts that are cured and smoked, they are thought to be carcinogenic. There’s good evidence that they are carcinogenic and that they cause various cancers, like colon cancer and possibly stomach cancer. And so, the World Health Organization recommends that we should significantly limit our intake of those kinds of processed meats.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So does this only apply to processed meat, not red meat more generally?

LAWRENCE GOSTIN: Well, in terms of the cancer-causing properties, processed meats—that there’s stronger evidence that processed meats cause cancers. But also other kinds of meats, other red meats—beef, pork—also are not very good for you in terms of cardiovascular health, and there is some evidence that they can cause cancer, particularly when Americans or others go into their barbecue or other places and really cook them so that they’re burnt, which may have cancer-causing properties to them, as well. But in any case, we know that a healthy diet doesn’t include a lot of either processed meats or red meats. You should be getting your protein from beans, tofu, poultry, and particularly fish.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Richard Wender, chief cancer control officer of the American Cancer Society, recently commented on the new dietary guidelines, saying, quote, "The science on the link between cancer and diet is extensive. By omitting specific diet recommendations, such as eating less red and processed meat, these guidelines miss a critical and significant opportunity to reduce suffering and death from cancer." Professor Gostin, talk now about how the USDA arrived at its dietary guidelines. They said eat less sugar, but they did not comment on meat. And what’s the significance of these guidelines? How do they affect the American diet?

LAWRENCE GOSTIN: Yeah, well, let me just first talk about the sugar, because I wouldn’t give them a free pass on sugar, because what the scientific advisory committee recommended was a specific recommendation for Americans to eat less sugar-added drinks and beverages. Those were completely omitted. There’s just a vague reference to eat less sugar, but not specifically don’t drink sugar-sweetened drinks like colas and other kinds of sodas. So don’t give them a free pass. I think that the beverage industry also put a lot of pressure, as well as the meat industry.

But one certainly can see that the—that all of the science—the vast majority of nutritional scientists believe that red meat consumption should be significantly limited. The government’s own dietary advisory panel recommended that those—that that recommendation appear in the final guidelines, and yet they were absent. And it was very clear why they were absent: because there was a lot of political pressure put by special interests—in this case, the meat producers—that really just censored government recommendations. And that’s very sad, because there’s nothing more important than the health of Americans.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So how powerful would you say these lobbying groups are, the meat industry and beverages, as you pointed out?

LAWRENCE GOSTIN: And the beverages. You know, I would say this: You know, we often—we think of tobacco as an evil industry, and it unquestionably is, and we call it Big Tobacco. But we also need to start to recognize that there’s something called Big Food. Of course, all food isn’t bad. We need to eat. I love to eat, heaven knows. But there’s all kinds of obfuscations, and the political influence of the food industry, particularly meat and the beverage industry—I could also mention alcohol and other industries—are very powerful. They tend to—we tend to think of them as good guys, but they’re not always good guys. And the diets that Americans eat, we think it’s a pure choice. But the kinds of labeling, marketing, producing of unhealthy processed foods of a wide variety—and here we’re talking about meat, quite rightly—is very important. But if you go to a supermarket or if you go to a cafeteria in the morning, you’re going to see all kinds of sausages and bacons, and people putting lots on their plate. That’s really bad for them. And we ought to tell people that.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Gostin, can you talk about whether other countries advise their citizens differently on red meat consumption and the consumption of processed meats?

LAWRENCE GOSTIN: You know, a lot of it depends upon whether or not the country has a strong industry in that area. So, if you’ve got—if you’ve got a country like the United States or Brazil or Argentina that have a large cattle and beef industry, you’re going to see a lot more pressure put on than you do in other countries. So, say, you know, the U.K. has some beef, but much less; their and the European guidelines do recommend eating less red meat. And so, it really depends upon how powerful the industry is, as to what happens.

And you did ask me the question, you know: Does it matter what the government recommends? Well, yes, it does. It gives the public the message, but it also influences school meals that we feed our children. These things are really important consequences for the future health of our nation, and we shouldn’t take them lightly.

AMY GOODMAN: The major purchases that are made by schools, for example. Finally, on the issue of the trade agreements, like the TPP, many are concerned that—about the issue of meat labeling. Would the TPP, for example, get in the way of talking about origins, country origins, of the meat you might be eating, Professor Gostin?

LAWRENCE GOSTIN: Well, they might. You know, we don’t have—we don’t have the details of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement yet, but there are lots of concerns. There are concerns about tobacco, alcohol, food labeling, and certainly meat. We just don’t know what protectionism is going to be put into there to protect large special interests. But I can tell you this, that we ought to look at trade agreements, both the Atlantic and Pacific trade agreements, through the eye of science and public health, and because, really, what our mothers told us, that nothing is more important than your health, is really true. And we need to make our representatives abide by that mantra.

AMY GOODMAN: Lawrence Gostin, we want to thank you for being with us, university professor, faculty director at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, also director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on Public Health Law.

LAWRENCE GOSTIN: It’s a pleasure.


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