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Why are Ivory Tower types in charge of food choices for millions of Americans?

Frank Hu, professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health and professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, a noted critic of meat, proclaimed in 2012 that “we should switch from a red-meat based diet to a plant-based diet,” which delighted vegan-advocacy groups but didn’t make much of an impression on the rest of the population.

But now Hu is one of 15 lifelong academics who have set the federal government’s official dietary guidelines which will determine how much meat (and other foods) children, soldiers and thousands of others will have access to.

DCGA recommendations are used to set the menus for cafeterias in schools, military bases, prisons and federal workplaces, millions of Americans will be affected by the committee’s decisions.

Unfortunately, many of these professors seem to have an agenda that reaches far beyond sound food science.

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), a joint venture of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture, met last week to continue deliberations over revised official federal nutrition recommendations.

Because these recommendations are used to set the menus for cafeterias in schools, military bases, prisons and federal workplaces, millions of Americans will be affected by the committee’s decisions. Thus, it’s crucial that its members focus on the task assigned to them -- determining what amounts of calories, fats, protein and other nutrients constitute a healthy diet, and what foods people should eat to acquire these nutrients -- and not let tangential concerns derail them.

Unfortunately, the DGAC has already given every indication that it’s less focused on crafting square meals than it is on pursuing an ecopolitical agenda -- promoting vegetarianism in the name of “sustainability,” and suggesting that environmental concerns will come ahead of basic nutritional questions.

One of Hu’s colleagues on the DGAC, New York University professor Miriam Nelson, said at the committee’s last meeting, “We need to make sure that the guidelines and the policies are promoting those foods ... [that] are sustainably grown and have the littlest impact on the environment.” She also noted that in crafting the 2015 dietary guidelines, the committee was “also really addressing the issue of long-term sustainability.”

The DGAC’s vice chairperson, Tufts professor Alice Lichtenstein, spoke lovingly of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban of transfats and his proposed ban of large sugary drinks in New York City, referring to them as “just small drops in that bucket” and implying that further nanny-state restrictions on food were needed.

In fact, at its last meeting, the DGAC heard testimony from Sonia Angell, the city’s former Department of Health and Mental Hygiene director, who oversaw the Bloomberg administration's transfat bans, strict food procurement regulations and the National Salt Reduction Initiative. Lichtenstein introduced her to the committee as her "hero."

Nelson wanted to push the Bloomberg envelope further, asking Angell what she thought it would take to address sugar consumption in the same way New York took on transfats.

"How do we take the same action?" she asked, clearly reflecting the committee's mindset that Bloomberg-style regulatory action is required to influence Americans' eating habits.Should the committee have its way, look forward to nationwide "behavior modification" programs such as bans and taxes that will drive up costs and restrict choices for consumers.

Bloomberg’s bans are a perfect symbol of the pitfalls of stacking such a powerful committee with a homogeneous group of professors, most of whom have spent decades in academia and many of whom have never held a job outside the university bubble. 

To someone who has spent his life immersed in books and laboratories, a ban on soda sounds like a sensible way to get Americans to consume fewer calories – and, logically following, something that sounds like a good idea must also be good policy.

The professors on the panel are unquestionably qualified and undoubtedly well-intentioned, but it’s hard to expect a group lacking in pragmatic real-world experience to create pragmatic real-world policies without getting sidetracked onto irrelevant issues as the current DGAC is. Instead of creating an all-academic committee, the government should have appointed experts from a range of nutrition-related professions.

For example, because the DGAC’s guidelines play a critical role in determining what is served in schools and on military bases, the committee should include a member with experience in administering large-scale food service operations, in addition to all these professors. It should also include working food scientists, practicing pediatricians, an administrator from one of the food benefit programs dependent on DGAC and someone from the business side of cultivating food.

The professors of the DGAC may think their job is save the planet by promoting sustainable agriculture and plant-based diets, but if they don’t understand the real-world implications of their work, they’ll be oblivious to the havoc they’ll wreak on the millions of Americans whose diets hinge on their guidelines.

The committee needs to focus on doing its job, not on doing the job it wishes it had.

Erik Telford is Senior Vice President of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.