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USDA puts your health at risk: Other Voices

Over the past century, the rapid increase in the number of Americans suffering from a host of preventable diet-related diseases (heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes) has been paralleled by the engulfing power and influence of a small group of transnational food conglomerates that lead our industrial food system.

Food corporations are largely responsible for our burgeoning waistlines by encouraging the overconsumption of their unhealthful food that significantly contributes to chronic health diseases and by using their power to sway agencies designed to help us make better food choices.

Indeed, as Marion Nestle points out in her exposé “Food Politics,” they blatantly overstep ethical boundaries through the lobbying tactics they exert over federal officials and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which releases nutritional guidelines and recommendations every five years. Lobbyists gain access to upper-administration policymakers and engage in social transactions that pressure government health directors to safeguard corporate financial interests by restructuring the framework of federally issued dietary advice, at the expense of public health.

The USDA’s mission is deeply contradictory and geared toward promoting, not regulating, the food industry. The department’s dual responsibility of assisting meat and dairy farmers with government-funded subsidies while simultaneously working to define a nutritious and balanced diet through the food pyramid creates a conflict of interest that puts the health of meat- and dairy-consuming Americans at risk.

In short, the USDA is completely compromised. According to Nestle, six of the 11 members on the USDA Dietary Guidelines Committee have ties to large meat and dairy corporations. With the help of lobbyists, they systematically alter the nutrition model set forth by the National Institutes of Health, an unbiased council of scientists, in order to release standards that satisfy the requests of large, industrialized companies.

The USDA constructs dietary guidelines with deliberately obscure language. The message reads, “Choose a diet that is low in saturated fat and cholesterol and moderate in total fat” (USDA Dietary Guidelines, 2010), which may be hard advice to follow if you don’t know the fat breakdown of specific foods. Moreover, it also fails to directly address meat and beef consumption, the main source of these fats in the average American diet.

In the end, the multibillion-dollar investments in lobbyists are later reflected in the $71 billion in health-care costs to treat individuals with chronic diseases.

Social reform starts at an individual level simply by voting with your fork. First, commit to purchase local produce and gradually reduce the proportions of processed foods and meat in your diet, replacing them with fresh fruits and vegetables. Second, urge your congressional representative to enact legislation that ends the USDA’s conflict of interest so that a healthful diet can become the standard. Finally, patronize the Los Altos Farmers’ Market on State Street for fresh foods.

Together, we can derail the power and influence of the leaders of our current industrialized food system and alleviate the social, public health and environmental problems that they generate.

Los Altos native Angela Gradiska is a junior at Stanford University majoring in American studies, with a concentration in obesity, nutrition and public health.

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