Thirty years ago, a report to the U.S. Senate started an avalanche that threatened to bury the meat industry. Whether the industry has learned anything from its harrowing experience may soon be discovered, as conditions are ripe for another large storm.
The “Dietary Goals for the U.S.,” presented to the Senate by the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Health (SSCNH) on Jan. 14, 1977, created headaches for those protecting red meat’s good nutrition reputation. The second of recommended changes to reach the goals listed by the Committee was to “decrease consumption of meat and increase consumption of poultry and fish.”
“It was the first time that nutrition became a political issue,” says John Huston, who was a National Live Stock and Meat Board (Meat Board) executive at that time. Huston would go on to become Meat Board president from 1980 until the 1996 merger with the National Cattlemen’s Association that created the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
Of course, nutrition had been a key focus of the checkoff since a voluntary checkoff program was first created in 1922. But for most of that time, “the issue had been people trying to get enough calories, not getting too many of them,” Huston says. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, however, there were warnings that a nutrition firestorm was brewing.
In December 1969, for instance, the first White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health was convened. At that four-day conference – the biggest ever concerning human nutrition – a combination of government, business, agricultural, consumer activists, educators and health practitioners got together to discuss the nutrition levels, health status and food-related economics of the American public.
Supporters and staff of the American Heart Association (AHA) used two of the panels at that conference to bash meat consumption. The Meat Board subsequently wrote a letter to then-Secretary of Agriculture Clifford Hardin to register its concern about the unscientific nature of these sessions.
Then in 1973, beef boycotts gave strength to the movement – as well as to activists determined to bring down the meat industry.
By 1974, the Sen. George McGovern-led Senate Select Committee was claiming that a “food policy” was needed, and it created a “National Nutrition Policy Study Conference,” with more than 1,000 prominent individuals attending. This conference was coordinated by Harvard University’s Jean Mayer, a noted anti-meat crusader who preached that all Americans needed to reduce their meat consumption.
In July of that year, the industry got an even clearer picture of the dangers it faced. The Meat Board, in its Meat Board Reports publication, warned readers that “the Senate group… may be sending recommendations to the full Senate for possible government action on national nutrition policy in the not too distant future.”
Additional rhetoric was added to the anti-meat bandwagon at the “World Hunger Conference” in 1975. In keynote remarks, the man who would become the advisor to the Dietary Goals, Harvard University’s Mark Hegsted, stated that American citizens ate twice as much meat as was necessary, and that animal fat consumption was related to several diseases. He urged a reduction in animal-fat intake.
In 1976, the Senate Select Committee held a hearing with very little publicity. In fact, Meat Board nutritionists didn’t even know the event was taking place, and no industry organizations had been alerted.
It wasn’t until the final report was delivered Jan. 14, 1977 – at a Washington, D.C. press conference – that many people inside or outside of the industry knew a staff report had been prepared, or that it was slated to be final, with recommendations for further government action.
The “Dietary Goals for the U.S.” were broad and dangerous. They recommended that less red meat be consumed, less saturated fat be consumed, less cholesterol be consumed, less salt be consumed, and less sugar be consumed.
The timing of the release of these Dietary Goals was suspicious at best. The SSCNH, chaired by McGovern (D-SD), was scheduled to be phased out, or to be placed within the Senate Agriculture Committee. Many considered this release to be grandstanding and a grab for attention and sympathy.
Cortez Enloe, editor of Nutrition Today magazine, was one of those people. “They were fighting for their life,” he wrote in 1979. “Their tenure was up. But Congress said no, Sorry George, you’re going to have to go over and live in the agriculture committee. So to prove they were really doing something, they got out all their old hearings and pasted up all the things that looked alike, and put this flossy name on it. ‘Dietary Goals for the U.S.’ They had a big press conference. No hearing, just a press conference. This was supposed to impress Congress. But Congress wasn’t impressed. They blasted him out of business anyway.”
On greased skids
Clearly though, government and association activists who had expressed concern about the nutritional health of Americans had not only gained ground, they had helped the issue reach critical mass with the Report.
The February, 1977 Meat Board Reports stated “The self-fulfilling prophetical statements of Hegsted and others on this matter for years have fed on each other, creating a body of appearance of ‘evidence.’ Such as it is, the ‘great deal of evidence’ is inconclusive, unconvincing, much of it poorly demonstrated and heavily biased, little of it scientific and altogether underwhelming.”
A subsequent newsletter claimed the Goals Report had “been accepted by the Senators as though it were as inviolate as the Sermon on the Mount. Its promoters hold a sanctimonious view that only a conscienceless, self-aggrandizing interest could be challenging the noble cause the report embraces.”
The meat industry mobilized quickly to counterattack. In February, the American National Cattlemen’s Association (ANCA, later to become NCA) asked the Meat Board for technological assistance, and the SSCNH staff asked the Meat Board to provide more information. That request proved later to be nothing more than window dressing.
Producers, through requests made to their Senators, also asked for a hearing that would allow the industry to present witnesses who could challenge the recommendations in the Goals. The industry was granted one, to be held March 24, 1977.
At an ad hoc meeting March 10 to prepare for the hearing, representatives of the American Farm Bureau Federation, ANCA, American Meat Institute (AMI), National Independent Meat Packers Association, National Pork Producers Council and Meat Board got together to outline the problem. The meeting demonstrated that while the industry was jumping into action, it wasn’t prepared to do it with both feet.
A summary of that meeting stated: “it was apparent that the group consensus was that the Meat Board might be overreacting to the report; that the issues presented by the Senate Nutrition Committee could be handled most effectively via a public relations route and other activities.”
The March 14, 1977 issue of Meat Board Reports was blunt about the size of the challenge and the lack of resolve in the industry to firmly and directly attack it. The newsletter stated the idea that saturated fat and cholesterol are bad and that polyunsaturated fat is good is an “astonishingly arrogant attitude (that) has been greeted with ‘ho-hum’ from too many in the animal industries who are occupied with attempts to solve more immediate day-to-day problems. We hope there’s an awakening, if it’s not already too late.”
At the time, the Meat Board had little money, and the lobbying arms of the industry – ANCA and AMI – approached it from totally different perspectives. And the two sides didn’t always see eye to eye.
Some in the industry hadn’t bothered to read the Dietary Goals closely, according to Dave Stroud, then president of the Meat Board, and had unwisely trusted their representatives when they said the Goals were harmless. “They were looking for bargaining chips, rather than the truth,” he says.
Many on the lobbying side, Huston says, “couldn’t grasp that this had become a political issue.” And it would be several years before all organizations could agree it was a real one. One industry leader told Huston that if the industry would “just be quiet about this, it will go away.”
Mr. Stroud goes to Washington
“We weren’t a lobbying organization,” Stroud says. “We were naively looking for the truth.”
Because the Meat Board wasn’t adept at lobbying, and for other reasons, some friction was encountered by battlefront allies. “They (the lobbyists) believed we (Meat Board staff) were operating outside of our charge,” Stroud says. “Scientifically we weren’t, but politically we were.”
When it came to working with specific legislators, for example, Stroud says the lobbying groups became protective. “They said ‘you can’t do this. They’re our friends’,” he recounts.
The March 24, 1977 Senate Hearing on this issue was a case in point. The Meat Board had worked to put together testimony for the event, and Stroud had put in a request to organizers that scientist presenters testify last. Request denied, with the government organizer asking “why Stroud was behaving badly by not going along more reasonably.”
Those who have met and worked with Stroud know he could never be mistaken for a shrinking violet. And he knew full well what he was getting into prior to the hearings.
On March 19, Stroud told National Provisioner magazine that the March 24 hearings were “pablum being spooned out to angry livestock producers to get the heat off.” He claimed the issue wasn’t the meat industry against the health of Americans, “it is fact against fiction... It is scientific development against arrogant authority.”
The hearing lasted for three hours, and provided some opportunity for the industry to showcase the other side of the story. But the lack of day-to-day political experience was evident, and it embarrassed some who had to work with legislators on a variety of cattle and meat industry issues. Lobbyists were chagrinned when Stroud verbally accosted Charles Percy, senior Senator from Illinois, as he was getting up to leave the hearing before it was over.
“Wait a minute, Sen. Percy, there’s one thing I’ve got to tell you,” Stroud announced, according to some who attended the meeting. That wasn’t something you do to a Senator with significant Capitol Hill clout and power over many of your pending legislative issues.
Stroud had about the same amount of luck with the SSCHN staff, whose members Stroud now says were only looking to appease their bosses and the industry. “I thought Percy’s staff was looking for the truth,” he says. “They weren’t.”
In fact, in an April 22, 1977 letter to Percy, Stroud complained that: “Select Committee staff members, unable to believe that they could have erred, are deaf. They regard our pleas as industry prattle and protectionism. The Senators themselves, I fear, with great faith placed in that staff, are much too busy to fully comprehend either the long-term implications of ‘Dietary Goals’ (as now written) or our arguments about its prematurity and several invalid conclusions.”
Later in that letter, Stroud said the Meat Board had concluded: “that in its present form, it (the Goals Report) will create great nutritional mischief that may never be undone in the generation it can influence.”
Government operatives went out of their way to belittle the industry position. When Meat Board staff members tried to make a point, the attacks against them were “subtle but significant,” Stroud says. “Our representatives were labeled as apologists for the meat industry.”
When Meat Board voices were raised in Washington, D.C., people on both sides of the issue got nervous. One cattle-industry leader, in fact, pointedly told Huston that “if Stroud would just stay out of Washington, we wouldn’t have this nutrition problem.”
There’s no denying, however, that Stroud was on target when it came to what would eventually happen on nutrition and health. He “saw this thing coming together,” Huston says.
In a letter to the Meat Board Directors and officers of constituent organizations later that Spring, Stroud wrote that “the problems presented to the meat industry by Dietary Goals are cataclysmic. The industry’s recognition of their seriousness is critical. Because 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. That movement is already underway!”
Another of Stroud’s reports at the time said: “We believe that if the report is permitted to be continued in circulation, and the recommendations of that report are followed by government and private health agencies and practitioners, the livestock and meat industry faces grave and lasting damage to its market.”
In fact, just one month and two days after the January release of the Goals, the Bureau of Foods of the Food & Drug Administration announced it would re-examine its long-term non-position on fatty acids and heart disease. The Center for Science in the Public Interest was also getting into the act, lauding the Dietary Goals while slamming the Extension Service’s role in moving them forward.
Today, Stroud looks back on the efforts with both fond and frustrated memories. “We felt noble. Whether we were or not…
“We just didn’t have the budget to get the job done, so we did it through public relations more than anything else.”
Stroud today points out that the AHA had done a great job of joining with vegetable-oil manufacturers to mount this anti-meat campaign. But there were certainly independent allies in the counter-fight.
The American Medical Association (AMA) at the time, for instance, while not publicly joining meat-industry efforts, didn’t support the government effort. In a statement to the Committee, the organization said: “it must be recognized that diets must not be standardized nor be inflexible for all persons but must reflect individual needs. We believe that it would be inappropriate at this time to adopt the proposed national dietary goals as set forth in the Report on Dietary Goals for the U.S.”
The industry also received indirect support for its positions from Nutrition Today’s Cortez Enloe. In a column in the July/August 1979 issue of the magazine, he said: “One thing that is certain about nutrition is that the subject has become a political football in the nation’s capital. Elsewhere, knowledgeable people may debate whether food causes cancer, heart disease and other degenerative disorders, but not so in Washington. McGovern, (Michael) Jacobson, (Jean) Mayer and other nutrition politicians have all the answers. Here, doubts are out. Position, money, and the power plays are in.”
All about the bucks
For those who don’t think money was at the root of this issue in Washington, it’s interesting to note that in 1977, research into human nutrition received about $50 million from the entire U.S. government, according to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). In 1979, the budget for nutrition in the National Institutes of Health and USDA alone was more than $170 million.
The fight for the increased nutrition funding was creating significant turf wars in D.C. The main participants in this war were the USDA and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) – both saw itself as the protector of good health for Americans.
According to “Nutrition’s Battle of the Potomac” in the July/August 1979 issue of Nutrition Today, after the 1977 farm bill was passed, “there has been a surge in the dollars spent on human nutrition by both HEW and USDA. HEW now spends far more than USDA, but USDA is catching up – and in growth seems likely to continue. USDA has latched onto the preventive ethic of Dietary Goals, which Congress seems to love.
“NIH, with its traditional emphasis on the biochemistry of disease, is at a distinct disadvantage in the battle for new funds,” the article goes on.
NIH, in fact, initially took a skeptical view of the diet/health issue, saying that, in most cases, hard evidence of a diet-disease link had not yet come to light. It would be better, the agency said, to tell the public nothing rather than to call for a radical change in the American diet that might prove useless.
“Dietary Goals gave the people at USDA something to hang their hat on,” stated Enloe in the July/August 1979 Nutrition Today. “So now they’ve become the barefoot boys of nutrition. The minute USDA took up this position, they had the race against HEW hands down. Why? Because now they’re activists. They’re new age, neo-naturalists, and they have an issue. On the level of popular ideology, HEW just couldn’t compete.”
Much of USDA’s success in getting funding for its efforts came from its complete support of the Dietary Goals. And much of that support was coming from the USDA assistant secretary for Food and Consumer Services, Carol Tucker Foreman.
Tucker Foreman, who was previously the executive director of the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), was cussed and discussed in many industry meetings at the time, having camped comfortably with those who saw meat as the enemy. Unfortunately, her new position gave her even more credibility with the public.
According to Enloe, “Mrs. Foreman has depended for advice upon such people as Sen. McGovern and the activist Michael Jacobson, 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…”
Foreman, who went back to D.C.’s CFA as director of its Food Policy Institute, continues to be involved in meat-industry issues, campaigning for national mandatory country-of-origin labeling, for instance.
In his 1979 commentary, Nutrition Today’s Enloe put the nutrition guidance issue in a broader perspective. “Money is a heady fragrance but it should not dull the senses to the reality of the inexactitude of current nutrition knowledge,” Enloe wrote. “The democratic way sometimes scares the wits out of us, but, more often than not, common sense wins out.”
Common sense in Washington?
In a memo to Meat Board leadership on June 12, 1978, Barbara M. Hicks, then the Meat Board director of education, wrote that “the desire to prevent or solve all health problems immediately is so overwhelming that nearly all of Washington is presently preoccupied with it. Food and nutrition is at the forefront; confusion, disillusionment, frustration, mass hysteria and public paranoia seem inevitable.”
Her words were prophetic. Yet the inevitable results don’t stop lawmakers and regulators from moving to try to save Americans from themselves.
JoAnn Smith, who would go on to become the first chairman of the Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board, said in a speech to the Midwestern Conference on Food and Social Policy on Nov. 15, 1978 that many activists “lack faith in a free society and in a free economy. They oppose a system in which scientists remain primarily scientists; in which the public has access to all available information and makes its own food choices; which lets a free economy respond to those choices and allocate resources for production. They prefer to have government much more involved in deciding the structure and direction of our food economy.”
Over the years, the meat industry has seemed unable – or unwilling – to take the necessary steps to fully address these issues, which continue to grow like weeds. Over the past 30 years, in fact, really not that much has changed.
George Mann, Sc.D., M.D., Vanderbilt University, spoke at a Meat Board meeting in the late 1970s. “The record shows that we can’t depend on the food industry,” he said. “The meat and dairy industries have, with a few exceptions, the best record of nutrition education from industry. But these industries suffer from complacency. They behave as though they think your product belongs with love, god and mother, inviolate and above any need of help. The rise of the soft-drink industry, the rise of the meat diluters and egg beaters and such products should make them question that position.”
John Huston, still an advisor to the meat industry, thinks we’re getting better. After the Dietary Goals were submitted “we were finally addressing (the issue) at the right levels.” And he thinks it caused the industry to move in the right direction.
For one thing, Meat Board efforts in the early 1980s gave the public a more realistic idea of how much meat we were really eating. Previously, calculations had been made from disappearance data, giving people an inflated view of the level of meat consumption. Additional research was also done that helped the industry deal with excess fat issues.
“There is good that comes from everything,” he said. “You don’t see that ½-in. fat trim, for instance. That was a product of the nutrition fight. We’re also not promoting the larger portion sizes,” Huston says.
Nutrition activists “gave us the signal that we must be more responsive to our marketplace,” he adds. “And I think we are today. We were slow to start, but I think we’re on pace now.”
The fathering storm
Positives aside, it’s hard not to recognize the harm done the industry by those who believe its products are unhealthy. And any optimism may be put to the test this year, as government and anti-meat activists get ready to unleash another thumping on the meat industry.
The AHA will again be at the center of this effort, this time with the Clinton Foundation in the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. The alliance is one of the strongest non-government initiatives to be formed in a long time – and is only expected to get stronger. Leading companies, such as Kraft, Campbell, Dannon, Mars and PepsiCo, have joined in this effort, which will promote the consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grains while placing limits on calories, fat, saturated fat, trans fat, sugar and sodium.
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 currently evident in this country. Many in the nutrition field believe all forces must be assembled to fight the growing problem, with new regulations and requirements expected in labeling, food production and marketing. This includes using checkoffs to carry messages that may not be fully supported by the industries they were created to help.
Definition of irony
In a truly ironic twist, with the Supreme Court determining that the beef checkoff program is “government speech,” government and activists may be able to use the meat and vegetable checkoffs to support agendas that producers funding them might not want to support. The government is saying that since it’s their speech, the checkoff programs should say what they want them to, not necessarily what producers want them to.
The Supreme Court decision may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory for the meat industry.
In the June 2006 issue of the journal Obesity, Parke Wilde wrote that the “government’s ‘speech’ about food guidance and nutrition must in its entirety be consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” Wilde, who is with Tufts University, and other thought leaders think checkoffs to this point have hurt obesity efforts.
These activists believe the checkoffs must emphasize more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The USDA is already making changes that would suggest movement in that direction, giving more intense scrutiny to (and modifying) messages being funded by the beef checkoff. USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service has even hired a former nutritionist from the Center for Science in the Public Interest to tighten reviews of checkoff programs.
From the time checkoff programs were instituted, activists have believed such programs were about increasing demand without concern for public health. Now, as they get more and more control over government programs and government speech, they’re in a win/win situation.
Will it be as bad as 1977? Though it’s hard to tell at this point, there’s no question it will become increasingly difficult for producers to deliver proper messages – and very important for them to carefully protect the messages they’re paying for.
Walt Barnhart is a freelance writer and president of Carnivore Communications, Denver, CO.