Professor files suit against USDA guidelines

An adjunct professor is heading a group suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services over the latest federal dietary guidelines.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine – a non-profit organization that promotes preventive medicine – claims ambiguous language make guidelines unclear. The group also charges that the authors of the guidelines have a conflict of interest in their work on the subject, according to the complaint filed Feb. 15.

The 2010 guidelines were released during an event at GW’s Jack Morton Auditorium Jan. 31 featuring Health and Human Services Sec. Kathleen Sebelius and Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack – both named as defendants in the case.

The guidelines include key recommendations to help Americans become healthier by eating less and making half your plate fruits and vegetables.

PCRM’s president, Neal Barnard, is an adjunct associate professor of medicine in GW’s School of Medicine. Though Barnard recently commented on the conflict of interest his group sees in the USDA’s roles of promoting agriculture and writing the guidelines, he was unavailable for comment before publication.

PCRM’s Director of Nutrition Education Susan Levin said the highly technical language used in the USDA dietary guidelines is a problem. She said PCRM wants the guidelines to be rewritten for clarity.

“Under the heading ‘foods to decrease’ are things like ‘consume less than 10 percent of your weight in saturated fat’ and ‘solid fat,’ and those aren’t food, they’re not being specific enough,” Levin said.

She said it isn’t fair to the public to have to weed through these guidelines in order to understand what the USDA is suggesting.

The complaint also alleges that the defendants have a conflict of interest in writing the guidelines.

“The USDA has a dual mandate to support U.S. agriculture and also set these guidelines, which no agency should be asked to do because it creates a conflict of interest. While I am empathetic to that, it’s no reason to be vague about the guidelines,” Levin said.

The complaint notes that the guidelines “avoid identifying foods that people need to eat less often (e.g., meat and cheese),” and said the biochemical terms used are unfamiliar to the general public.

PCRM is requesting a jury trial and asked the court to declare that the defendants violated the Administrative Procedure Act “by issuing dietary guidelines that are not based on the preponderance of current scientific and medical knowledge.”

A goal of the lawsuit is to get the USDA to revise the dietary guidelines to be more specific, and Levin said she hopes the litigation will attract public attention to the subject, helping educate the public about the biochemical terms used, such as saturated or solid fats.

She added that she hopes in 2015 HHS and the USDA “get real about the guidelines and regulations.”

The USDA writes new dietary guidelines every five years.

Levin said she expects PCRM to win the lawsuit “because these guidelines are arbitrary and capricious.”

The next step is in the hands of the USDA and HHS, Levin said, as the agencies have to decide what they want to do now that the lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Spokespersons for the USDA and HHS declined to comment on the lawsuit.

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