There are few federal food policies as contentious as the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, developed every five years after a report by the independent U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. The guidelines not only inform individual consumers about what’s healthy and what isn’t but are also used to develop approaches to everything from food labeling regulations to school lunch menus and food stamp benefits.
In other words, there’s a lot of money at stake.
So it’s not surprising that following the 2015 committee report, which had recommended that Americans reduce their consumption of red and processed meat and sugar-sweetened foods and beverages, the food and beverage industry scrambled to respond.
But newly released emails suggest a broader strategy for shaping policy. The chain, which began with a mass email from the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC), an industry-funded group, included a conversation between two former executives of Coca-Cola Co. and of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), also an industry-funded group.
Industry efforts to influence policy are nothing new, and efforts to shape the dietary guidelines have long been part of them. In addition, evidence of attempts to sway the scientific debate have surfaced recently.
These emails lay out “what appears to be the food industry’s roadmap for dealing with scientific challenges,” said Gary Ruskin, co-founder and co-director of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit group that advocates transparency in the industry and that obtained the email chain through a request under a state open records act. “I’ve never seen such a document.”
U.S. Right to Know gets most of its funding from the Organic Consumers Association. Ruskin is an author of a report on the significance of the emails published today in the journal Critical Public Health.
The emails “reveal deliberate use of [the tobacco industry’s] ‘playbook’ tactics: cast doubt on the science, influence reporters, use front groups (e.g., ILSI and IFIC) to undermine concerns about the harmful effects of sugary drinks and head off dietary guidelines raising such concerns, and regulation,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University and author of Food Politics and Soda Politics, about the way those industries influence the American diet and, increasingly, the world’s.