Health watchdog demands greater transparency on US dietary guidelines amid conflict of interest fears
12 May 2023 --- The US Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is urging the federal cabinet agencies charged with publishing the Dietary Guidelines Advisory (DGA) to increase transparency between individual committee members and their possible ties to the food and pharmaceutical industries. CSPI suspects that the agencies are hiding potential financial conflicts of interest from the public.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a list last month naming relationships, activities and interests that are interfering with the independence of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s (DGAC) scientific review.
The CSPI stresses that the list fails to include detailed information about individual relationships between members and the industry, which “doesn’t provide the public with the information it deserves.”
“The top priority for this DGA cycle is to improve transparency around industry influence. The agencies say they vetted potential conflicts to ensure none of the DGAC members had disqualifying ties before appointment,” Catherine Cochran, policy fellow at the CSPI, tells NutritionInsight.
“Transparency will allow the public to hold the agencies accountable for these decisions. The public has no visibility into what degree of conflict might have been deemed incompatible with the committee’s service.”
According to Cochran, this potential conflict of interest disclosure differs from standard government procedure.
“We cannot recall ever encountering conflicts disclosed this way. For example, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) advisory committees always disclose particular conflicts for each affected member.”
However, a spokesperson from the USDA and HHS (US Department of Health and Human Services), tells us that the DGAC decided to voluntarily disclose relationships, activities and interests that may potentially be related to the content of the committee’s report, which “goes above and beyond what’s required of federal advisory committees.”
“We remain confident this committee will successfully conduct an independent review of the science and provide unbiased recommendations to HHS and USDA to inform the development of the next edition of the Dietary Guidelines,” they say.
Pinpointing industry influence
The list includes major food industry companies, such as Abbott Nutrition and Beyond Meat. From the pharmaceutical industry, ties are disclosed with Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk and Pfizer.
“However, the agencies’ decision not to disclose potential conflicts on a member-by-member basis with dollar values is a poor outcome for both the public and the committee,” says Dr. Peter Lurie, president of CSPI.
“Who has ties to the beef industry? Who has ties to the dairy industry? How much did they receive? The public and the press would have little idea based on this, and members of the committee who have no industry ties are unfairly lumped in with those who do.”
Cochran details that some food industry actors, including the American Egg Board, Beyond Meat, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Dairy Council (NDC), are identified on the committee’s recently published list of voluntary disclosures.
We spoke with Katie Brown, executive vice president of Scientific & Nutrition Affairs at the NDC, who detailed that the NDC’s expectations of transparency require everyone to disclose freely when the council is a funding source or sponsor of research in all types of publications.
“Additionally, NDCl-funded research is made publicly available in reputable peer-reviewed scientific journals, abstracts at scientific meetings and presentations to professionals. Once the research is published, results are communicated in truthful ways and not misleading to non-scientist audiences,” notes Brown.
The public would expect that the relevant companies and associations would prefer that DGAC members do not make any unfavorable recommendations about their products because the committee’s forthcoming report will influence the 2025-2030 DGAs, says Cochran.
“Ultimately, the next edition of the Dietary Guidelines will impact which foods are purchased, served and consumed by millions of people living in the US, and enhance or endanger the profitability of these companies and these associations’ members,” she notes.
“During the committee selection process, HHS reported collecting financial disclosures from DGAC candidates under final review. However, that form – OGE 450 – is exempt from public disclosure. That said, HHS could develop a separate form to collect disclosures that could be made available to the public.”
On May 10, the committee held a second meeting, in which Cochran tells us that the committee voluntarily disclosed its potentially conflicting relationships as a collective because that’s how it operates.
“Yet, in doing so, members without ties to industry actors are lumped in with those with ties, and the public is left in the dark about which members may be conflicted by secondary interests,” she adds.
Some DGAC committee members have openly expressed statements such as “throw the willpower out the window” when speaking of obesity, claiming that it’s a brain disease that cannot be treated with exercise and a healthy diet.
“A committee member’s conflict of interest with a pharmaceutical or food company, for example, receiving research grant funding or speaker fees, could potentially bias their decision-making in favor of that company,” Jessi Silverman, senior policy associate at the CSPI, previously told NutritionInsight.
“If the public is going to have confidence in the Dietary Guidelines, it must have trust in the process,” Lurie says. “This incomplete disclosure on the part of the agencies is an unforced error that they still have time to reverse.”
Cochran further details: “The DGAs provide critical dietary advice to people living in the US largely by setting the nutritional standards for many federal, state and local feeding programs, including school meals. It is imperative that the public feels it can trust the advice presented in the DGAs.”
“That trust is built by providing transparency about how the guidelines are developed, who is involved in that process, and any conflicting interests those individuals may possess. Having a conflict does not necessarily endanger the integrity of the guidelines, but not fully disclosing those conflicts may reduce their effectiveness,” she concludes.
NutritionInsight contacted Abbott Nutrition, Beyond Meat, Pfizer and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, none of which provided comment on this development.
By Beatrice Wihlander
This feature is provided by FoodIngredientsFirst’s sister website, NutritionInsight.
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