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Column: A former corn-syrup lobbyist is drafting new federal dietary rules (seriously)

KRT LIFESTYLE STORY SLUGGED: HEALTH-HIGHFRUCTOSE KRT PHOTO BY JEFFERY WASHINGTON/FORT WORTH STAR-TEL
A former lobbyist for the Corn Refiners Assn. is helping oversee nutrition guidelines intended to address the obesity epidemic. An advisory panel of experts, meanwhile, has close ties to food and beverage companies.
(Jeffery Washington / KRT)

The swamp isn’t just getting deeper. It’s being ladled out for supper.

Federal dietary rules are required by law to be updated every five years. Under previous administrations, this task was performed mainly by nutritional experts focused on improving public health.

Under President Trump, the process is being overseen to a large extent by a former lobbyist for the Corn Refiners Assn. — the high-fructose corn syrup industry.

Yes, that would be the same sweetener commonly found in soda, candy, breakfast cereal, canned fruit, condiments and other processed foods and drinks frequently linked with the obesity crisis and increasing rates of diabetes and heart disease.

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Meanwhile, a blue-ribbon committee of “nationally recognized health and nutrition experts” advising on the new guidelines contains a number of academics with significant ties to food and beverage companies.

This latest iteration of nutritional guidance “can be expected to be as industry-friendly as possible,” said Marion Nestle, a professor emeritus of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University who helped set dietary guidelines under President Clinton.

“We were instructed to review the research and give the American public the best possible interpretation of the meaning of that research in dietary guidelines that we ourselves wrote,” she told me. “That process has now changed.”

This is important stuff.

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Dietary guidelines for the American people serve as “the cornerstone of federal nutrition programs and policies, providing food-based recommendations to help prevent diet-related chronic diseases and promote overall health,” according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

The next guidelines, to be issued in 2020, are especially noteworthy because for the first time they’ll address not just things like school lunches but also dietary needs of pregnant women, infants and small children.

They also will be our latest response to an obesity epidemic that’s costing the country about $175 billion in annual healthcare and as much as $7.6 billion in lost productivity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

With all that in mind, it’s not unreasonable to think the government needs to take a strong stand on upping America’s nutritional game.

There’s certainly enough scientific evidence to make good decisions — and most experts agree on what has to be done.

Less sugar. Less salt. Fewer calories. Smaller portions. Easy on the red and processed meats.

What’s unclear, however, is whether this administration has any interest in pursuing such goals, which would run contrary to the interests of some of the country’s largest and most powerful industries.

“The potential for conflicts of interest are a concern,” said Angela Amico, a senior policy associate with the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Look at the waiver.”

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The waiver she’s referring to is an ethical get-out-of-jail-free card handed out by former White House counsel Donald McGahn to Kailee Tkacz (pronounced “T’Kash”), whose past as an industry lobbyist raises questions about whether she’s focused first and foremost on the public’s well-being.

Before Tkacz was paid by the Corn Refiners Assn. to influence federal policy in favor of soda pop, she lobbied on behalf of SNAC International, a trade group representing manufacturers of potato chips and other junk foods.

Normally a person with her background wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the drafting of dietary guidelines. However, McGahn waived ethical requirements, ruling that “it is in the public interest” for Tkacz to help draft the 2020 document.

He said Tkacz’s past lobbying efforts on behalf of food and beverage companies “make her uniquely qualified” to help guide official policy.

I’m honestly not making that up.

When Tkacz was hired by the Trump administration in July 2017, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue praised her for having “extensive knowledge of the food industry supply chain, from farm to folk.”

He also welcomed the hiring of Maggie Lyons, who before joining the Agriculture Department was a lobbyist for the National Grocers Assn., which has fought providing consumers with calorie counts on product labels. Tkacz worked for the association as well earlier in her career.

I reached out to the department for comment. No one gotten back to me.

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When the 20 members of the dietary-guidelines advisory committee were announced in February, the administration depicted them as the best and the brightest in the fields of nutrition and public health. Each committee member was identified solely by his or her academic affiliation.

For example, the committee’s chairwoman, Barbara Schneeman, was identified as being from UC Davis, where she’s listed on the university’s website as a professor emeritus in the department of nutrition.

Left unsaid in the announcement was that, according to her LinkedIn page, Schneeman is a former president of the Dannon Institute, a nonprofit foundation backed by the dairy-focused food and beverage company of the same name.

She also has served as a trustee of the International Life Sciences Institute, which, according to SourceWatch, “was first established in 1978 by Coca-Cola, Heinz, Kraft, General Foods and Procter & Gamble.”

Schneeman couldn’t be reached for comment.

Sarah Reinhardt, a food systems and health analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said most of the researchers on this year’s advisory committee “have been funded by industry at one time or another.”

However, she cautioned against reading too much into food experts’ industry ties.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find any food scientists who didn’t have ties to industry funding,” Reinhardt said, noting that food and beverage companies pay for a significant amount of research in the field.

Nevertheless, she acknowledged that it’s fair to wonder if such experts bring entirely unbiased views to the table (so to speak). They may not want to jeopardize funding for future projects.

“These are valid concerns and we share them,” Reinhardt said.

Cary Kreutzer, a professor and dietitian at USC who focuses on nutrition, said the long arm of industry makes it even more important for the government to find experts who can approach the task of drawing up nutritional guidelines in an objective manner.

“There are still researchers that do not have conflicts,” she said.

And could we please stop willfully overlooking the ethical conflicts that former industry insiders bring to public policy?

Under Trump, former industry lobbyists are now in charge of the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services. A former Boeing executive is running the Defense Department.

It’s possible the next set of dietary guidelines will have the best interests of the American people at heart. Just in case, though, do yourself a favor.

Less sugar. Less salt. Fewer calories. Smaller portions. Easy on the red and processed meats.

And my only conflict, which I freely admit, is an occasional hankering for In-N-Out.

David Lazarus’ column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.


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