Doctors Say USDA and HHS Breached Duties When Encouraging Americans to Eat Milk and Meat

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and three individual doctors filed a Northern District of California lawsuit on Wednesday alleging that the food recommendations given by government departments are not accurate and are being influenced by the dairy and meat industries. Specifically, they claimed that the food guidelines do not advise Americans to avoid meat and dairy products, as recent science suggests.  

The plaintiffs alleged that Tom Vilsack, Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Xavier Becerra, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have not fulfilled their duty under the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act to publish nutritional guidelines, based on scientific knowledge for the public. 

Instead, the plaintiffs claimed that the defendants have conflicts of interest and “intentionally use inconsistent, misleading language and biochemical terminology to frustrate the purpose of the report and to avoid providing sound and accessible dietary information and guidance on how to overcome these chronic diseases.” 

Reportedly, this has caused the Physicians Committee harm as it has needed to expend resources to fulfill the defendant’s duty of informing the public about dietary guidelines, and the plaintiff has needed to correct misinformation. The filing specifically alleged that the dietary guidelines have made its mission of publicizing the benefits of eating plant-based foods and avoiding meat and dairy foods harder, and led it to expend more time and resources than it would otherwise need to. 

According to the plaintiffs, the defendants’ actions show that the official dietary guidelines reflect the interests of meat and dairy industries over public health advice. The filing also cited that the USDA secretary has a duty to expand uses of agricultural products, which conflicts with its duty to make unbiased diet recommendations. 

The complaint additionally purported that the “unlawfully developed Dietary Guidelines” interfere with doctors’ ability to help their patients, citing that hospitals, schools, assisted living facilities, and recreational camps are frequently required to provide meals that align with the dietary guidelines. Additionally, nutrition programs need to adhere to the guidelines to be eligible for grants and they are used by state and local health organizations to make decisions. 

The most recent version of the dietary guidelines was published on Dec. 29, 2020. The complaint reported that rather than including guidelines “for the general public,” the new guidelines say that they are “developed and written for a professional audience,” and only one page is used for information about consumer messages and the public.  Additionally, the guidelines use technical terms instead of commonplace terms further making the guidelines inaccessible to the public. 

“The Dietary Guidelines impair the physicians’ relationships with their patients, making it more difficult for the physicians to accomplish their professional objectives of keeping their patients healthy,” the filing said. 

Additionally, the guidelines reportedly “hide the fact that the leading sources of saturated fat are dairy products and meat and go so far as to suggest that grains are somehow major sources of saturated fat,” according to the plaintiffs. They claimed that this is misleading, and cited that an image in the saturated fat subsection shows avocados and nuts despite that a more accurate image of leading sources of saturated fat would show dairy and meat. 

Although the guidelines “repeatedly demonstrate that children consume too much saturated fat and sodium,” it promotes meat and dairy which contain high fat and sodium. The plaintiffs cited additional contradictions and guidelines suggesting dairy without scientific support, including not decreasing dairy amounts when calorie amounts are decreased. They alleged that there is not scientific evidence to support increasing dairy in a diet. 

The doctors and Physicians Committee ask the court to rule that the USDA and HHS secretaries violated the Administrative Procedure Act and require the defendants to change the dietary guidelines to match “the preponderance of current scientific and medical knowledge.” 

The Washington Post reported that the USDA said the Physicians Committee has sued it after it released two other dietary guidelines, and both of those lawsuits were dismissed. 

The plaintiffs are represented by Evans & Page.