The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a bad case of multiple personality disorder, and just like Brad Pitt and Edward Norton in “Fight Club,” the agency’s alter egos regularly duke it out. In one corner is the USDA, charged with protecting consumers. In the other corner is ... the USDA, dedicated to helping industry. Yet when consumer protection and industry promotion go toe-to-toe, the results can be bizarre and dangerous for consumers.
In my book Meatonomics, I show how the USDA’s built-in conflicts of interest threaten Americans’ health and well-being through inadequate food safety, misleading product labeling, and confusing or inaccurate nutrition advice.
This article looks at five ways the USDA regularly fails to safeguard consumers and keep us informed. Regardless of your diet or politics, this routine and risky government bungling is something you cannot afford to ignore.
1. The USDA's safety measures don't go far enough.
The USDA is responsible for inspecting meat to ensure it’s safe to eat. But audits find that misguided USDA inspection efforts permit the regular presence in meat of dangerous toxins or pathogens like arsenic and E. coli, with the latter found only by “happenstance.”
2. The USDA has sketchy labeling enforcement.
Labeling standards can be misleading and subject to industry influence. Thus, more than 300 inorganic substances—including artificial colorings and flavorings—find their way into foods certified by the USDA as “organic.” In one example reported in The Washington Post, staff at the USDA staff decided that baby formula containing synthetic fats could not be called organic because the synthetic fats are often made with hexane, a neurotoxin.
However, after an industry lobbyist contacted a USDA deputy administrator to advocate his clients’ position, the agency bureaucrat overruled her staff and allowed the questionable baby food to sport the organic label.
3. The USDA's dietary advice is brought to you by McDonald’s.
Industry players move around the agency with ease, exerting tremendous influence on nutrition policy. Case in point: two-thirds of the panelists who drafted the USDA’s latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans had ties to industry, including McDonald’s, Dannon, and others.
As a result of this commercial influence on federal nutritional policy, the Harvard School of Public Health rejects the USDA’s dietary advice as the product of “intense lobbying efforts from a variety of food industries.”
4. The USDA offers conflicting and confusing nutrition recommendations.
The USDA’s battling campaigns in nutrition and marketing often confuse consumers. Thus, the USDA’s nutritional arm says we should ask for "half the cheese” on pizza to reduce our saturated fat intake. But at the same time, the USDA’s promotional arm helps dairy farmers sell more cheese.
A program under USDA oversight teamed with Domino’s Pizza to create and market a pizza with much more cheese than normal. With six cheeses on top and two more in the crust, a twelve-inch “Wisconsin” pizza contains 39 grams of saturated fat, roughly double the USDA’s recommended daily saturated fat maximum of 20 grams.
5. The agency will do anything to sell more product
Sometimes the agency gets the facts wrong in ways that help industry and put consumers at risk. During the 2009 swine flu epidemic that killed 12,000 Americans, the pork industry asked the USDA for help diffusing a major sales problem—people were buying less pork because they didn’t want to get sick.
Despite strong evidence that swine flu originated in pigs, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack told Americans in a press conference that the disease is unrelated to pigs and would henceforth be called “H1N1 Virus.” But research published in the peer-reviewed journal Naturea few months later showed—surprise—that swine flu actually started in pigs.
What Can We Do?
The USDA’s heavy conflict of interest in nutritional matters has led to calls for change. Former U.S. Senator Peter Fitzgerald (R-IL) said in 2003 that USDA dietary guidance “probably has more to do with diabetes and obesity than Krispy Kremes.” But Fitzgerald got little traction with his proposal that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services take over USDA’s responsibility for nutritional advice.
American consumers deserve better.
We deserve dietary advice, labeling standards, and food safety programs that are objective and based on science rather than on industry lobbying. Two in three adult Americans are overweight, and one in three has heart disease (including hypertension, or high blood pressure). Our government should act to reverse this epidemic of illnesses of indulgence, not help industry sell us even more of the very foods that are hurting us.
Senator Fitzgerald had the right idea, even if he lacked the votes to get it done. We must keep pushing lawmakers to disentangle the USDA from policy-making in nutrition, labeling and food safety, and leave it to its main goal of helping farmers.
And in the meantime, treat dietary advice from the USDA as you would investment advice from a car salesman: with caution.