It was meant to be “The People’s Department.” But today’s USDA routinely sides with big agribusiness over “the people,” heedless of safety and nutrition concerns or the needs of small independent farmers.
President Lincoln established an independent Department of Agriculture separate from his executive cabinet and referred to it as “The People’s Department” in his last annual message to Congress. The law that established the department outlines its duties as acquiring and diffusing agricultural information, and “to procure, propagate, and distribute among the people new and valuable seeds and plants.” How far this department has strayed from its founder’s intent!
A new lawsuit from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) is aimed at both the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services. Their new Dietary Guidelines are clear about what to eat more of—vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, for example—but use deliberately obscure language when discussing the foods Americans should eat less of.
According to the PCRM, this deliberate omission can be traced to the USDA’s close ties to food industries, including fast food companies such as McDonald’s. The PCRM is demanding that the USDA actually name the foods they suggest consumers eat in lesser quantities. The lawsuit also raises concerns over Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee members with ties to the food industries, including a member who served on an advisory council for the McDonald’s Corporation.
The USDA has a history of conflicts of interest:
- In 1999, health organizations filed a lawsuit against USDA and HHS alleging that federal law requires an advisory committee to comprise a fair balance of different points of view and prohibits special interests. However, out of eleven committee members, six of them had financial interests in food industries. In October of 2000, the court ruled that the USDA violated federal law by withholding documents and hiding financial conflicts of interest.
- As we reported in January, the USDA is at the center of a federal anti-obesity drive that demonizes fats and cholesterol. The USDA’s “Path to Personal Health” brochure suggested that consumers “ask for…half the cheese” on their pizzas. But the same agriculture department created a Dairy Management branch that actively pushes the sale of cheese and milk—the largest source of saturated fat—even convincing Domino’s to add 40% more cheese to its pizzas! These documents are a stark example of inherent conflicts in the USDA’s historic roles as both marketer of agriculture products and America’s nutrition police.
- To make this worse, the science about cheese and other high cholesterol food is complex. Too little cholesterol is just as bad (or worse) than too much of it. Indeed, cholesterol is a basic building block of all our hormones, and most of it is made by our bodies rather than derived from the food we eat. The USDA should neither be demonizing cholesterol rich foods nor catering to and helping big food companies sell them.
None of this can be remedied without dealing with conflicts. Then there is a matter of the disastrous appointments to important posts—foxes to guard the henhouses, as it were:
- The Secretary of Agriculture is Tom Vilsack, a staunchly pro-biotech former governor of Iowa. With his appointment, Monsanto and the other pesticide and genetic engineering companies were assured of having plenty of friends and supporters in Washington. In quick secession the USDA approved three different genetically engineered crops, as we reported to you last month.
- Roger Beachy was named the head of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture—a critical post that awards hundreds of millions of dollars in research grants. Mr. Beachy used to be head of the Danforth Plant Science Center, which was founded by Monsanto and is essentially its NGO research and PR arm.
- Michael Taylor, Senior Adviser to the Food and Drug Administration Commissioner on Food Safety in the 1980s, was a private lawyer at the DC law firm King & Spalding, where he represented Monsanto. When Taylor returned to government as Deputy Commissioner for Policy for the FDA from 1991 to 1994, the agency approved the use of Monsanto’s GM growth hormone for dairy cows (now found in most US milk) without labeling. His role in these decisions led to a federal investigation, though eventually he was exonerated of all conflict-of-interest charges.
- And Ramona Romero, corporate counsel to DuPont (one of the world’s largest chemical companies), has been nominated by President Obama to serve as General Counsel for the US Department of Agriculture.