Thirty years ago, a U.S. Senate nutrition report started an avalanche that threatened to bury the meat industry. Be prepared, experts say, because we may be in for another large storm.

“The Dietary Goals for the U.S.” were presented by the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Health (SSCNH) on Jan. 14, 1977. One of the recommended changes to reach the goals was to “decrease consumption of meat and increase consumption of poultry and fish.”

This wasn't the first evidence a storm was brewing. A White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health in 1969, for instance, lamented the health status of the American public. By 1974, the SSCNH, led by Sen. George McGovern (D-SD), was calling for a “food policy.” But it wasn't until the final report was delivered that many people fully recognized its negative consequences.

On greased skids

Clearly, those who had been expressing concern about the nutritional health of Americans got traction with the report. The meat industry mobilized quickly to counterattack, with producers requesting and receiving a March 24, 1977 Senate hearing at which they presented the other side.

Staffs of the meat industry's lobbying and research organizations met March 10 to discuss the issue. Reports from the meeting suggested the lobbying and scientific sides of the industry didn't see eye to eye.

Some in the industry hadn't bothered to read the document closely, and had unwisely trusted their representatives who said the Dietary Goals were harmless, says Dave Stroud, then president of the National Live Stock and Meat Board (Meat Board). John Huston, who would succeed Stroud as Meat Board president, says many people on the lobbying side “couldn't grasp that this (nutrition) had become a political issue.”

Furthermore, Huston says, it would be several years before all organizations could agree it was a real issue. One industry leader told Huston that if the industry would “just be quiet about this, it will go away.”

The industry wasn't quiet, however, and it didn't go away.

In a 1977 letter to Meat Board directors, Stroud wrote that “if there is only a ho-hum response… then Dietary Goals will become the bible and gospel for tens of thousands of nutritionists, dietitians, school lunch planners, educators and the government itself.”

In fact, it wasn't long before the Food and Drug Administration's Bureau of Foods announced it would re-examine its long-term, non-position on fatty acids and heart disease. It was during this period that the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) was also becoming better known, as it lauded the Dietary Goals.

Stroud today points out that the American Heart Association (AHA) had done a great job of joining with vegetable oil manufacturers to mount the anti-meat campaign. Support for the opposite view from the American Medical Association (AMA) and a few others weren't enough to quell growing government and activist action — and subsequent negative consumer sentiment.

All about the bucks

In 1977, research into human nutrition received about $50 million from the entire U.S. government. In 1979, the budget for nutrition in the National Institutes of Health and USDA alone was more than $170 million. This caused turf wars in Washington, D.C., with USDA and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare each considering themselves the protector of good health.

USDA's success in getting funding for its nutrition efforts came from its support of the Dietary Goals, much of it from USDA assistant secretary for Food and Consumer Services Carol Tucker Foreman. Foreman was previously the executive director of the Consumer Federation of America, and has since gone back to work for that organization.

According to Nutrition Today editor Cortez Enloe in 1979, “Mrs. Foreman has depended for advice upon such people as Senator McGovern and the activist Michael Jacobson [head of CSPI], men without formal training in nutrition science, and she's politically beholden to them. Then there are her principal scientists, Mark Hegsted and Jean Mayer, who are biologists, not physicians. In addition, there are many others in this coterie who would have us believe that the McGovern political dietary proclamation is the prescription for everlasting life…”

Pluses and minuses

In retrospect, John Huston thinks the industry benefited somewhat from the controversy. After the Dietary Goals were submitted, he says, “we were finally addressing (the issue) at the right levels.” And he thinks it caused the industry to move in the right direction.

Nutrition activists “gave us the signal that we must be more responsive to our marketplace,” Huston said. “And I think we are today.”

It's hard not to recognize, however, the harm done the industry by the fight. Optimism may be further put to the test soon, as activists get ready to challenge meat's dietary role.

Mary K. Young, R.D., executive director of nutrition for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, says she's never seen the nutrition environment change faster. “This is causing mass confusion in the marketplace,” she says, and could have major implications for the meat industry.

She notes there's been an “explosion” of health and wellness products flooding supermarkets, with major companies creating a “better for you” category based on the level of punitive nutrients, such as fat, cholesterol and sodium, rather than the positive messages about nutrient density the meat industry has tried to promote.

Again at the center is the AHA, this time with the Clinton Foundation in the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. The alliance is one of the most powerful non-government initiatives to be formed in a long time, and is expected to get stronger. Leading companies, such as Kraft, Campbell and PepsiCo. have joined in this campaign, which places limits on calories, fat, saturated fat, trans fat, sugar and sodium.

With trans fats being removed from many products, Young says, saturated fats will again take the activist spotlight. Meat is the second leading contributor of saturated fats in the American diet, behind dairy.

Increased scrutiny of health and nutrition is also expected to be part of the 2007 farm bill. And on the horizon could be a revision of the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” updated in 2005. That may happen by 2010.

The “obesity epidemic” is fueling much of the activism, Young says. Many in the nutrition field believe all forces must be assembled to fight the growing problem — including the use of commodity checkoffs to carry messages that may or may not be fully supported by the industries that helped create them.

Strange turns

In an ironic twist, last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the beef checkoff program is “government speech” may allow government and activists to use the meat and vegetable checkoffs to support agendas that producers funding them might not support. In the June 2006 issue of the journal Obesity, Parke Wilde of Tufts University wrote that the “government's ‘speech’ about food guidance and nutrition must in its entirety be consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

The USDA is already making changes, giving more intense scrutiny to messages being funded by checkoffs. USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service has even hired a former CSPI nutritionist to tighten reviews of checkoff programs.

Yet, because it counts agriculture as its constituency, the USDA is the industry's only ally in the fight, Young points out, and deserves support. If it cedes control over the nutrition issue to other agencies or quasi-agencies, meat stands to be the loser.

As they gain more and more control over government programs and government speech, activists are in a win/win situation. Will it be as bad as 1977? It's hard to tell. But there's no question it will be increasingly difficult for producers to communicate their messages — and very important for them to carefully guard the messages they're paying for.

For a more detailed account of beef's 1970s nutrition battle, click here.

Walt Barnhart is a Denver, CO-based freelance writer and president of Carnivore Communications LLC.