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Published on Saturday, February 26, 2000 in the Contra Costa Times
Corporate Pressures Are Keeping Unhealthy Foods Front And Center On America's Plates
by Mindy Kursban

"HEART DISEASE and Prostate Cancer Diminishing." "Diabetes Reaches All-Time Low." "Stroke Rates Drop Sharply."

Doubt you'll read such headlines in your lifetime? Maybe you've concluded that chronic disease is just part of the American experience -- a sad consequence of the poor-quality, high-fat meals virtually flying off fast-food counters day in and day out.

But what if, beginning today, every American followed the federal government's guide to eating well, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, symbolized by the well-known Food Guide Pyramid? Would we finally see dramatic decreases in common chronic diseases and a slimmer, healthier nation?

Not likely. Industry pressures are keeping unhealthy foods front and center on America's plates.

Recently, we at the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) looked closely into the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee -- the group entrusted with determining what Americans should eat for optimal wellness. Our investigation has revealed the hairy hands of the meat, dairy and egg industries controlling what you and I are told to eat.

Committee Chair Cutberto Garza has worked closely with the National Dairy Council, Mead Johnson Nutritionals (a major seller of dairy-based products), and the Nestle Co., and has served as a scientific adviser to a Dannon yogurt affiliate. At least six of the 11 members have major ties to groups such as the National Dairy Promotion and Research Board, the National Live Stock and Meat Board, SlimFast Nutrition Institute, the American Egg Board Grant Review Committee and the American Meat Institute.

Appointed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the committee's dietary recommendations set standards for all federal food-assistance programs, including the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, the Food Stamp Program, and the Women, Infants and Children Supplemental Feeding Program. The guidelines are also referenced by physicians, nutritionists and even grocery shoppers checking food packages.

It's not only unethical to stack this committee with individuals who have an economic stake in their own recommendations, it's against federal law. In 1972, Congress strictly prohibited industry influence over government policies via advisory committees. The law aimed at eliminating special interests, ensuring fair representation of viewpoints, and encouraging public access and participation within such committees. Sadly, USDA itself felt justified in employing Eileen Kennedy as its deputy under-secretary of agriculture while she worked as a scientific adviser with the same Dannon affiliate as Garza.

It took a lawsuit, filed by PCRM in U.S. District Court in Washington in December, to bring this issue to light.

Among the government's dietary sacred cows is a requirement making milk central to all dietary programs. Long-touted as the best calcium source, the fact is, dairy products can wreak digestive havoc on the nation's African-, Asian-, Hispanic- and Native Americans. In fact, 95 percent of Asian-Americans, 70 percent of African-Americans and Native Americans, and the majority of Hispanic-Americans simply cannot digest the sugar in cow's milk.

Served in cafeteria lines by the tens of millions per day, a milk carton can be downright harmful to lactose intolerant children, causing painful bloating all afternoon long, and sometimes diarrhea. Given no alternatives, many children simply endure feeling ill, while confused parents assume that they are alone with this problem. If we could remove industry pressures from school lunch lines, perhaps schools could offer other calcium-rich foods such as fortified fruit juices, soymilk, green leafy vegetables and beans as part of a vegan diet.

Dairy and other animal products heighten risks for heart disease, certain cancers, stroke, obesity, hypertension, diabetes and other major problems. Rates often run especially high among minorities. Yet, these food products' definitive links between chronic illnesses and fatty foods have been virtually ignored by the government and remain unreflected in the Food Guide Pyramid, the visual designed to help the public interpret the guidelines.

By chance and circumstance, many people have discovered and tapped into the disease-fighting power of diets rich in fruits, vegetables and grains on their own. Let's get politics out of the kitchen. We need a fresh, unbiased committee. Nutritional experts should be tasked to advocate what's truly healthiest for all Americans, not for special-interest bank accounts

Mindy S. Kursban is staff counsel to the Washington-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit group founded in 1985.


2000 Contra Costa Newspapers

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