SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A federal judge in San Francisco dismissed a lawsuit Thursday by a group of doctors who say the federal government’s nutritional and dietary guidelines intentionally use difficult language to promote eating unhealthy foods instead of plant-based alternatives.
Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg granted the U.S. Department of Agriculture's motion to dismiss the case, finding the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit that promotes plant based diets and preventative medicine, lacks standing to bring the lawsuit.
“We’re of course disappointed, but not entirely surprised,” said Mark Kennedy, the vice president of legal affairs for the Physicians Committee. “We've tried a number of different arguments over the years, because we’re not seeing change.”
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine sued USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and Xavier Becerra, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, in April 2021 after the release of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
It’s not the first time the committee has sued the feds over the health guidelines. In 2016, the committee sued claiming the 2015 dietary guidelines downplayed the risk of cholesterol in eggs, because of lobbying efforts by the American Egg Board and the desire to promote the consumption of eggs.
In that case, the U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler found no developed laws that prohibit special influences in the creation of dietary guidelines, meaning the court had no guidance in how to adjudicate the case.
Every five years the USDA must release the guidelines, which are used as the basis for deciding what foods are included in meal programs and food assistance, like the National School Lunch Program, and nutritional and health education programs.
In the 1980s, the guidelines were written for the general public. But since 2000, the guidelines have been written for policymakers and nutrition and health specialists who then are supposed to find ways to disseminate the information in the guidelines to the general public.
The doctors' group claimed the language used in the 2020 health guidelines intentionally used misleading and difficult language and ambiguous pictures to “avoid providing clear dietary information and guidance for the general public,” especially the negative health effects tied to eating meat, dairy and eggs. Instead of pushing for the consumption of healthier, vegan, plant-based alternatives, the doctors said, the government pushes the public to consume more meat, dairy and eggs.
“It’s not really about health,” Kennedy said. “It’s really an economic recommendation to support the agency’s preferred commodities.”
For example, the group claimed the health guidelines' beverage section “reiterates the push to consume milk but lacks any scientific support for this recommendation” despite 24% of Americans being lactose intolerant, including 95% of Asian-Americans, 80 to 100% of Native Americans, 60 to 80% of African-Americans and American Ashkenazi Jews, and 50 to 80% of Latinos
“Conflicts of interest such as this prevent defendants from making unbiased decisions based on scientific and medical knowledge,” the doctors said in their complaint.
But Seeborg found the guidelines don't prohibit the doctors' group from carrying out its mission and can't show injury in that regard. And he said harms claimed by the group's individual members are too vague to give them standing.
Seeborg tossed the case without leave to amend, noting that even if the group or its individual members had standing, the guidelines are not a final agency action and therefore not reviewable by a court.
Kennedy said that the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is already looking out for the government’s 2025 health guidelines.
“We will be engaged in every step of the 2025 process,” Kennedy said.
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