Doctors Call USDA a Shill for the Egg Industry

      SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine sued the United States Wednesday, claiming its 2015 dietary guidelines downplay the risks of cholesterol: part of a 20-year campaign to increase egg consumption.
     The Physicians and three doctors sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services, in Federal Court.
     The USDA and HHS issued the new guidelines on Jan. Thursday. In a joint statement, the Cabinet secretaries hail the new guidelines as “the nation’s trusted resource for evidence-based nutrition recommendations” and said it will give health professionals and the public information they need to make healthy, informed choices.
     “Protecting the health of the American public includes empowering them with the tools they need to make healthy choices in their daily lives,” HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said in the statement.
     “By focusing on small shifts in what we eat and drink, eating healthy becomes more manageable. The Dietary Guidelines provide science-based recommendations on food and nutrition so people can make decisions that may help keep their weight under control, and prevent chronic conditions, like Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.”
     The recommendations fall into five categories: establishing healthy eating patterns; choosing a variety of nutrient-dense foods; limiting calories from added sugars and saturated fats; reducing sodium intake; and shifting to healthier food and drinks.
     Among other things, they suggest Americans should eat more dark green vegetables, beans, whole fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean proteins such as eggs, seafood and poultry, and healthy fats from plant-based oils such as olives and soybeans and from nuts and avocados.
     “The ‘Dietary Guidelines for Americans’ is one of many important tools that help to support a healthier next generation of Americans,” Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack said in the statement.
     The plaintiff doctors dispute the findings of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) that “cholesterol is no longer ‘a nutrient of concern for overconsumption.” The doctors say this contradicts the positions of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, previous dietary guidelines, and “decades of unbiased scientific research.”
     “In a poorly considered ‘analysis’ consisting of only three sentences, the DGAC recommended that defendants drop from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (‘Dietary Guidelines’) defendants’ longstanding advice that Americans consume no more than 300 milligrams per day of dietary cholesterol, with stricter limits for individuals at heightened risk of cardiovascular disease,” the complaint states. [1]
     More than 115 million Americans have diabetes, exposing them to greater risk of cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death for Americans, and scientific and medical knowledge indicates that cholesterol is a “significant contributor” to its development, according to the complaint.
     Studies used to support the new guidelines were funded by the egg industry rather than conducted by independent researchers, and several committee members once worked for institutions that received funding from the USDA’s egg promotion program, the complaint states.
     “The DGAC’s recommendations are part of a twenty-year attempt at a cholesterol image makeover based on research funded by USDA’s egg promotion program and designed specifically to increase egg consumption regardless of the health risks that may result from unlimited cholesterol ingestion,” according to the complaint. “The DGAC’s recommendations are disastrous as a matter of public health policy and stem from a serious violation of FACA [Federal Advisory Committee Act] by defendants,” whom the doctors claim failed in their duty to ensure that recommendations were not influenced by special interests or the government itself.
     Created by the USDA, the American Egg Board conducts research on eggs and egg products and establishes programs and projects to promote increased consumer consumption of eggs.
     Its research center, the Egg Nutrition Center, is funded by researchers at universities “and supports studies designed to portray eggs in a favorable light,” not necessarily to disseminate scientific material on eggs, according to the complaint.
     The egg industry is increasingly involved in financing studies on dietary cholesterol. It funded 29 percent of such studies in 1992, 41 percent of the studies in 2001, and 92 percent in 2013, the complaint states.
     As the primary financier of these studies, the American Egg Board deliberately minimizes health risks associated with eggs by, among other things, comparing them to other high-cholesterol foods such as meat; using small sample sizes; ignoring studies that indicate a rise in cholesterol if the results are not statistically significant; and omitting older studies from research reviews in favor of more recent, industry-funded studies, according to the complaint.
     Though several studies conducted at the USDA’s own research center at Tufts University indicate that dietary cholesterol “had an unfavorable effect on blood cholesterol levels,” the lead researchers concluded that the effect is merely “modest and appears to be limited to population subgroups,” the complaint states.
     With biased funding, skewed studies, and improper appointment of egg industry scientists to the committee, the doctors say, the committee concluded that Americans need not restrict dietary cholesterol despite decades of independent scientific evidence to the contrary.
     After the guidelines were published, American College of Cardiology President Kim Allan William Sr., M.D. sent the secretaries a letter warning that the guidelines would “encourage dietary choices that could prove risky for many Americans” and urging them to recommend restrictions of dietary cholesterol, according to the complaint.
     By promoting these new industry-influenced guidelines, the doctors say, the government is misleading the public about the harmful effects of a diet high in cholesterol.
     Five months after the report was released, a Gallup poll revealed that fewer Americans were seeking to lower their fat and salt intake, while several headlines declared that “scientists had been wrong for decades and that eggs and other cholesterol-containing foods pose no health risks,” the complaint states.
     The doctors say that people who believe these statements and dismiss the risks of high dietary cholesterol increase their risk of developing cardiovascular disease and dying prematurely.
     “The DGAC confused and misled the general public, the very group the dietary guidelines are supposed to benefit, by appearing to [be] exonerating dietary cholesterol and by widely publicizing its dangerous recommendations,” the complaint states.
     The USDA said it does not comment on pending litigation. But the USDA provided background information indicating that the four committee members with whom the plaintiffs take issue each received multiple nominations from several organizations.
     “Of the four committee members mentioned, only Alice Lichtenstein served on the subcommittee that addressed cholesterol; the Egg Board’s single accepted nominee did not serve on that committee,” the USDA said.
     According to the 2015 guidelines, Americans should aim to eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible. Though egg yolks are high in cholesterol, they are low in saturated fat and are thus one of many healthy choices from the protein foods group, according to the guidelines.
     “More research is needed regarding the dose-response relationship between dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol levels. Adequate evidence is not available for a quantitative limit for dietary cholesterol specific to the Dietary Guidelines,” the guidelines state.
     The doctors seek declaratory judgment that the government improperly allowed special interests to influence the dietary guidelines, an injunction preventing the government from using the committee’s findings to alter the nation’s dietary guidelines, and a mandate a return to prior recommendations to limit dietary cholesterol consumption to less than 300 milligrams a day.
     They also want a court order for the government to discard portions of the guidelines that rely on the committee’s cholesterol recommendations and to reissue them in light of current scientific knowledge.
     They are represented by Corey Page with Evans & Page.
     Mark Kennedy, director of legal affairs for Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, told Courthouse News in an email that the new guidelines not only contradict scientific research, it contradicts its own recommendations.
     “For example, the new guidelines recognize that ‘people do not need to obtain cholesterol through foods; individuals should eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible.’ They also state the health risks associated with cholesterol-containing foods: ‘Strong evidence from mostly prospective cohort studies but also randomized controlled trials has shown that eating patterns that include lower intake of dietary cholesterol are associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.’ At best, this lack of clarity confuses consumers; at worst, it may cause them harm,” Kennedy said.
      Industry influence also shaped other recommendations, such as the inclusion of processed meats – which the World Health Association added to its list of carcinogens in 2015 – and eating more dairy products despite research that they can “increase the risk for hip fractures, prostate cancer, and early death,” Kennedy said.

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