BIGGER THAN MILK: Health Advocates Sue USDA and HHS
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) filed a lawsuit yesterday in a U.S. District Court against the federal government charging that when the USDA and HHS selected members for the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee -- the nation's council on nutritional and dietary information -- they violated provisions in the 1972 Federal Advisory Committee (FAC) Act. The advisory committee began meeting in September 1998 to discuss revisions of the country's dietary guidelines for the year 2000. These recommendations -- the foundation for nutritional standards in all federal food assistance programs, including school lunches and food stamps -- are used in developing the Food Guide Pyramid and nutritional classes.
The FAC Act was established to "monitor and prevent industry influence over government policy." It prohibits committee members from having "inappropriate special interests" and requires that membership be "balanced in terms of points of view represented and the function to be performed." The PCRM contends that six of the 11 members, including Chair Cutberto Garza, have "inappropriate ties" to the dairy, meat and egg industries. They say these historically influential industries produce foods that disproportionately cause "unprecedented rates of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, cancer and obesity" in minorities. PCRM claims the committee is "unbalanced" because no appointees have interests in other food industries, such as fruit, vegetable and wheat. PCRM legal counsel Mindy Kursban said they are asking the court to order the committee be reconstituted with members without industry ties and representing the interests of minorities and recipients of federal food assistance programs. PCRM also hopes to block the release of the dietary guidelines advisory report, expected in January 2000.
Secrets and Dairy Products
In March, the PCRM recommended making dairy products an option, denouncing their superiority to other calcium sources such as green leafy vegetables, legumes and fortified juices. They also asked that the guidelines be supportive of parents choosing to reduce their intake of meat, dairy and fatty foods by substituting them with other foods. PCRM President Dr. Neal Barnard said the lawsuit came after the committee "thumbed its nose" at the proposals, prompting an investigation and the disclosure of members' conflicts of interest. Panelists at a press conference yesterday highlighted other concerns stemming from this dispute. Dr. Milton Mills, associate director at PCRM, underscored the disproportionate levels of chronic disease within minority groups due to differing genetic backgrounds. He said much of the conflict lies in the blending of two agencies with differing congressional mandates. Mills noted that the HHS is designed to "oversee and promote the health of Americans," while the USDA is responsible for expanding the U.S. agricultural market. He asserts that business has no place in the public health arena. The speakers also argued the need for dietary guidelines that are representative of the country's changing demographics. The emphasis on dairy products is of great concern to many minorities, as 95% of Asian Americans, 74% of Native Americans, 70% of African Americans and 53% of Latinos (Mexican Americans) are lactose intolerant. Although the inability to digest milk is not a debilitating disease in a clinical sense, it is damaging to one's quality of life, panelists said. Former U.S. Sen. Bill Owens spoke of the government's powerful influence on citizens making nutritional choices. He described how as a child he suffered from severe gastrointestinal disorders but continued to drink milk "because the government said I needed [it] for its nutritional value." Mills echoed Owens' sentiments, saying, "People are trying to do what their government tells them to do and it's making them sick" (Gay Hee Lee, American Health Line, 12/16).