Food Companies Influence the US Dietary Guidelines—and a Court Decided That’s Just Fine

Turns out that when it comes to industry sway over federal advisory committees, there are no rules.

<a href="http://www.istockphoto.com/photo/people-shaking-hands-gm515596052-88568493?st=_p_business">shironosov</a>/iStock


Would you want, say, the egg industry to shape government policy over whether people should avoid cholesterol?

When government regulators make important decisions—like deciding whether a pesticide is too dangerous to use, or what dietary choices to encourage and discourage—they often convene a committee of outside experts for advice. How much influence should affected industries exert over these federal advisory committees? A new decision by a federal judge suggests there might not be a limit.

Bribes or threats might qualify as undue industry influence. But beyond that, pretty much anything else goes.

Well, technically, the ruling does sketch out a limit. In the opinion, US Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler acknowledges that bribes or threats “from or to an advisory-committee participant” might qualify as undue industry influence. But beyond that, pretty much anything else goes.

Beeler notes in her decision that the the Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972 requires that the “advice and recommendations of the advisory committee will not be inappropriately influenced…by any special interest” and should instead “be the result of the advisory committee’s independent judgment.” But she adds that the Act establishes “no meaningful standard” for judging exactly how much industry influence is too much—and thus she dismissed a lawsuit claiming industry bias on a high-profile advisory committee.

The backstory goes like this: A panel assembled by US Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services convened last year to advise the agencies on the newest iteration of federal dietary guidelines. According to the pro-vegan group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, several of the committee members have funding ties to the egg industry. And in February 2015, the panel declared that cholesterol, a prominent component of eggs, should no longer be considered a “nutrient of concern”—and that the federal dietary guidelines should reverse decades of received wisdom and no longer urge Americans to limit their intake of eggs or other cholesterol-heavy foods.

Ultimately, the USDA and the HHS bucked the committee’s advice and maintained warnings about cholesterol in the final Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released in January 2016.

But the Physicians Committee sued, concerned that what it saw as Big Egg’s undue influence on the advisory committee would set a bad precedent.

Interestingly, the decision to dismiss the case does not weigh the alleged dangers of cholesterol or examine the particulars of the Physicians Committee’s claims that the panel was shot through with industry-tied scientists. Rather, Judge Beeler merely threw up her hands and ruled that since the Federal Advisory Committee Act does not explicitly lay out a method for determining how much industry influence is too much, the courts have no authority to rule on claims of undue influence.

Neal Barnard, founding president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, told me that the decision signals to all federal agencies—not just USDA and HHS—that “anything goes” when it comes to packing independent advisory committees with industry-tied experts. Short of bribery and threats, that is.

  • Tom Philpott

    Tom Philpott is the food and ag correspondent for Mother Jones. He can be reached at tphilpott@motherjones.com, or on Twitter at @tomphilpott.

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