Tuesday Talks with Dr. Patterson

Where’s the Beef?

March 17, 2015

 Where’s the beef?  This was the catchphrase made famous by a 1984 commercial for Wendy’s, which was attempting to draw a contrast between its meaty hamburgers and its competitor’s hamburgers composed of small beef patties with large fluffy buns.  The phrase grew into a popular idiom during this time period and was used to challenge the credibility or substance of someone’s argument.  It was famously used by Walter Mondale in a retort directed at Gary Hart during a 1984 Democratic Party presidential primary debate.  Today, meat industry leaders and members of congress might just be asking “where’s the beef” of the Secretaries of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Agriculture in response to the recent Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s (DGAC) report.  Furthermore, their question could be interpreted both figuratively and literally in this case.

 On February 23, the U.S. Departments of HHS and Agriculture posted an announcement in the Federal Register asking for comments on the recently released Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.  The report developed by the DGAC is considered as advisory and is used by the Departments of HHS and Agriculture to develop the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  These guidelines on diet, nutrition, and health have been developed every five years since 1980.  Since 1995, the guidelines have been required under the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act of 1990.  The Dietary Guidelines for Americans report is used to shape many federal nutrition education and assistance programs.  It also guides food purchases by the federal government (e.g. military food purchases).  The 2015 DGAC was composed of 14 experts appointed by the Secretaries of HHS and Agriculture from the private and public sector who have current scientific knowledge in the field of human nutrition and chronic disease.  The public is invited to offer comments on the DGAC’s report through April 8, 2015.  A hearing on the advisory report will be held on March 24, 2015.  (Federal Register)

 The 2015 DGAC report acknowledged some critical factors affecting American’s health.  First, about half of all American adults have one or more preventable, chronic diseases.  Second, about two-thirds of all adults are overweight or obese.  Poor dietary patterns, overconsumption of calories, and physical inactivity directly contribute to these disorders.  The report indicated that American diets tend to fall short of desirable levels of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and dairy.  Also, Americans tend to overconsume refined grains and sugars (USDA and HHS).  Based on the evidence reviewed by the advisory committee, their report indicates that a “healthy dietary pattern is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meat” (USDA and HHS).  The committee’s report goes on to suggest that a “diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet” (USDA and HHS).  Furthermore, it is stated that “current evidence shows that the average U.S. diet has a larger environmental impact in terms of increased greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and energy use…” (USDA and HHS).  It is these recommendations that has prompted the meat industry and members of congress to ask, where’s the beef?

 The U.S. meat industry could possibly be concerned over the small recommended role of meat in a healthy diet – “lower in red and processed meat.”  However, they were most concerned that the health benefits of lean meats were relegated to a footnote in the committee’s report – “lean meats can be a part of a healthy dietary pattern.”  Earlier guidelines have clearly acknowledged the health benefits of consuming lean meat.  The DGAC is recommending that the benefit of lean meat consumption not be included in the body of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans report, other than the noted footnote.  Concern over this recommendation was raised by the North American Meat Institute (Associated Press) and in letters from members of the House of Representatives (Conway, Walorski, and Rouzer) and Senate (Thune et al) to the Secretaries of HHS and Agriculture.  These letters also raised concern about the advisory committee making recommendations related to what is described as sustainable food production.  These members feel that this goes beyond the purview of the committee based on the statute and the expertise of the committee members.  Both of the letters from the House and Senate members also ask the Secretaries to extend the comment period from its current 45-day period, ending April 8, to 120 days.  To date, no announcement has been made by the Departments of HHS and Agriculture on the review period, nor has either agency commented on the recommendations of the DGAC.

 The need to improve American’s health is important to the productivity of our national economy and as a way of containing rapidly escalating healthcare costs.  The Dietary Guidelines for Americans can play an important role in achieving these outcomes.  Thus, it is imperative that the guidelines be based on sound scientific evidence and expertise.  Otherwise, we may all be asking, where’s the beef?  It is now up to the Departments of HHS and Agriculture to evaluate the recommendations from the DGAC and input from the public in developing the next Dietary Guidelines for Americans.


 Associated Press.  “Influence Game: Meat Industry Fights New Dietary Proposal.”  The New York Times, March 12, 2015.  (Accessed March 15, 2015): http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2015/03/12/us/politics/ap-us-dietary-guidelines-meat.html?_r=0


Conway, M.K., J. Walorski, D. Rouzer.  Letter to the Honorable Tom Vilsack, Secretary, U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Honorable Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, March 4, 2015.  (Accessed March 15, 2015): http://agriculture.house.gov/sites/republicans.agriculture.house.gov/files/Dietary%20Guidelines%20Advisory%20Committee%20letter.pdf

 Federal Register.  Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Agriculture: Announcement of the Availability of the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, Solicitation of Written Comments on the Advisory Report, and Invitation for Oral Testimony at a Public Hearing.  Vol. 80, No. 35, February 23, 2015: 9465.  (Accessed March 15, 2015): http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2015-02-23/pdf/2015-03552.pdf

 Thune, J. et al.  Letter to the Honorable Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Honorable Tom Vilsack, Secretary, U.S. Department of Agriculture, March 12, 2015. (Accessed March 15, 2015): http://www.agri-pulse.com/Uploaded/DietaryGuidelinesLetter03122015.pdf

 U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services.  Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.  February 2015.  (Accessed March 15, 2015): http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015-scientific-report/PDFs/Scientific-Report-of-the-2015-Dietary-Guidelines-Advisory-Committee.pdf


Dr. Paul Patterson is Associate Dean for Instruction for the College of Agriculture and Professor of Agricultural Economics.