We Are What We Eat
Dr. David Mielke, Retired Dean of the College of Business at Eastern Michigan University
Last fall the Agriculture Department released the results of its Annual Household Food Security in the US survey for 2013. According to the survey, 14.3% of US households, some 49 million Americans were food insecure at least some time during the year in 2013. Is food insecure the same as going hungry? Not necessarily. The USDA defines a food insecure household as one that is uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members. For most food insecure households, the inadequacies were in the form of reduced quality and variety rather than insufficient quantity. This survey, and others, has been used as the basis for a number of “food initiatives'”to regulate what Americans eat. Do we need regulations that determine what people should eat? Do school lunch programs need regulations to determine what our students eat? Is our food stamp program improving food security? Should the environment be considered when developing dietary guidelines? What is the “Right Thing to do?” Let’s look at some issues:
1. Every 5 years the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a panel of roughly a dozen academics and nutrition experts send their recommendations to the US Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services. The guidance will be used by the departments to revise the dietary guidelines, issued by the federal government.
2. The Dietary Guidelines influence billions of dollars of spending on government food programs, including the school lunch program standards, Defense Department menu guidelines and how foods are labeled.
3. For the first time, the Advisory Committee recommended that Americans should consider the impact on the environment when they are choosing what to eat. The 571 page report. recommended that Americans be kinder to the environment by eating more foods derived from plants and fewer foods that come from animals. Red meat is deemed particularly harmful because of, among other things, the amount of land and feed required in its production.
4. Members of Congress had sought in December to keep the committee from even discussing the issue of the environment and stick to nutritional and dietary advice.
5. The committee reported that evidence shows that, in general, a dietary pattern that is higher in plant based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds and lower in animal based foods is more health promoting and is associated with lesser environmental impact than its current average US diet.
6. Many scientists say animal based foods are a poorer choice for the environment because they are associated with significantly larger carbon emissions than their plant based counterparts. Animals generate a lot of methane and the production of meat products requires large amounts of feed, fertilizer and fuel, all of which place stress on the environment. Another study reported meat eaters contributed more to global warming than do fish eaters, vegetarians and vegans.
7. Red meat was a particular target because they say, on a per kilogram basis, beef is associated with more than twice the carbon emissions of pork, nearly 3 times that of turkey and almost 4 times of that of chicken.
8. The Advisory Committee said a food product’s environmental footprint should be disclosed on food or menu items.
9. The FDA has already proposed a rule requiring calorie labeling on menus at chain restaurants, grocery stores and movie theatres nationwide. The grocery and convenience store industries are especially upset about being included in that rule. The FDA also is requiring calorie counts for alcoholic beverages.
10. There is also talk in the administration to require special labeling for Genetically Modified Organism, or GMOs, despite the FDA finding in repeated studies that there are no bad health affects.
11. The School Nutrition Association, which represents 55,000 school cafeteria professionals has been fighting the new and existing regulations from the 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act , governing school lunch programs due to skyrocketing waste and costs.
12. The Obama Administration is proposing new rules aimed at making food served at day care centers healthier that would ban on site frying and qualify tofu as a meat alternative.
Has the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, gone too far, introducing further politicization into a review for new dietary guidelines.? Are the regulations for school lunch programs, labeling of carbon footprints, calorie counts at restaurants and even of alcohol, rules for day care centers, and possible GMO labeling really necessary? If the government is doing so well regulating our food intake, how are those on food stamps doing? A 2007 Journal of Nutrition study concluded that families receiving food stamps are over 50% more likely t obe food insecure, than similar households not on food stamps. What is the “Right Thing to do?” Government agencies using the Advisory Committee report should stick to the dietary recommendations—we have the EPA to deal with the environment. Food regulations are one more example of the regulatory environment in the US that stifles economic progress. By the way, I am going out for dinner tonight for a steak and a beer—calories and carbon footprint be damned.