Court Rules Against USDA’s Secrecy and Failure to Disclose Conflict of Interest in Setting Nutrition Policies
WASHINGTON—The U.S. Department of Agriculture violated federal law by keeping secret certain documents used in setting federal nutrition policies and by hiding financial conflicts of interest among members of a diet advisory committee, U.S. District Judge James Robertson said in a ruling made public today.
The ruling is a major victory for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy group that had lodged the lawsuit in Federal District Court for the District of Columbia on December 15, 1999.
PCRM had argued that at least six of the 11 members of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which formulates the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, had financial ties to the meat, dairy, or egg industries that may have made it more likely that unhealthy foods would remain in the government’s diet plan. PCRM’s suit also charged that the government had undercut the public’s ability to participate in and understand the Committee’s activities. The Dietary Guidelines provide nutrition advice for all Americans and form the basis for all federal food programs, including the School Lunch Program.
While USDA had provided information showing financial conflicts of interest for six committee members, Judge Robertson faulted the Department for refusing to provide details on an additional conflict of interest involving a payment of more than $10,000 for one member. This additional conflict has not yet been revealed, but PCRM anticipates its disclosure within a matter of days.
“Having advisors tied to the meat or dairy industries is as inappropriate as letting tobacco companies decide our standards for air quality,” said PCRM president Neal D. Barnard, M.D.
Mindy Kursban, PCRM’s attorney, said, “We hope that this Court’s strong ruling against the government will make the USDA think twice before appointing Committee members with inappropriate industry ties.”
Prior to initiating the lawsuit, PCRM’s efforts to change federal diet guidelines had won the support of the NAACP, former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, Martin Luther King, III, Muhammad Ali, and many others who objected to the overpromotion of meat and dairy products given the prevalence of lactose intolerance and diet-related diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension, among racial minorities.
The doctors’ group scored a partial victory in February, when the advisory committee accepted non-dairy foods, such as soymilk, as acceptable alternatives to dairy products.
Founded in 1985, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is a nonprofit health organization that promotes preventive medicine, conducts clinical research, and encourages higher standards for ethics and effectiveness in research.