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Hey USDA: Stop Protecting Profits and Start Protecting People


At the Monterey Aquarium's Cooking for Solutions conference last month, Dr. Loel Solomon, Vice President for Community Health at Kaiser Permanente, called the USDA non-disparagement clause one of the biggest obstacles to moving the sustainable food agenda forward in this country. The reporters in the audience looked confused. We'd all heard about state food disparagement laws (also known as "veggie libel laws") remember the Oprah mad cow kerfuffle? Industrial ag has been trying, and in some cases succeeding, to get laws on the books preventing anyone from saying things like "CAFO are bad" ever since — but none of us had heard of such restrictions at the federal level.

That's because there is no "law" at the federal level, there is just a contractual clause — part of every USDA funding agreement — that prohibits anyone receiving USDA funds from disparaging any particular brand or industry. "That clause is a wide source of frustration among prevention researchers, but I haven’t seen any organized effort to get it off the books," Solomon says. 

Researchers are not only prevented from making specific recommendations in their reports, but also from speaking publicly or to the media about any findings that could be read as disparagement of a particular brand or business. "We actually stopped seeking USDA funding partially because of that clause," Arnell Hinkle, execuitve director of the nonprofit CANFIT, says.

Hinkle's organization primarily targets low-income youth, who have repeatedly told Hinkle and her colleagues that they need and want specific recommendations about which foods to eat, and which to avoid. "Sunny Delight is a really good example: A lot of people think it's orange juice, so if you just say something vague like 'avoid sugary beverages,' that's not going to work. They need you to name names, and with USDA funding, you can't." 

Before deciding to opt out of USDA funding so that they could better educate the communities they work with, CanFit produced a report with dietary recommendations targeted specifically at African American boys. The report had to go through the USDA's Dietary Guidelines Committee before it could be released. "They took out all the brand names and specific recommendations, so what came out in the end was a generic report filled with innocuous statements."

But while folks like Hinkle are happy to discuss this problem when they're not seeking funding, those whose research is currently being stifled by the clause don't (or can't or won't) speak out publicly. "I never asked them about why the clause was in place; when you're getting their funding you sort of just want to fly under the radar," Hinkle says.

That's unfortunate because the pile of watered-down, scrubbed, reports the USDA is helping to fund are not enough to change behavior, and certainly not enough to help overhaul the U.S. food system, something health researchers and sustainable food advocates agree needs to happen.  

"The nation simply cannot address the obesity issue by only focusing on increasing the consumption of healthy foods," Kelly D. Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University says. "The assumption that eating more healthy foods will displace the unhealthy ones by somehow making them less appealing or attractive is not supported by the data. The USDA misses a major opportunity by forbidding its educators from discouraging consumption of classes of food."

It's not just researchers who are affected by the clause, but also virtually anyone who works on healthy food initiatives and, most importantly, the general public, which is having important information about the food they consume hidden from them. 

"This affects not only researchers, but states running Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) education programs," Margo Wootan, director of Nutrition Policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest says. "It means that they can't address many important messages in the dietary guidelines — those that encourage people to eat less of a food, like soda, whole milk, fatty cheese. It is a barrier to addressing nutrition. Both Maine and California had to pull nutrition ads and materials that encouraged people to drink less soda."

Of course, the U.S. Department of Agriculture needs to help support people in the agriculture industry. But when it does so at the cost of misinforming the public and, in effect, harming those who would improve food systems in this country, it is biting the hand that feeds it. The USDA did not respond to requests for information about why it has this clause in place, but here's hoping a little public attention might get people talking about it. 

Amy Westervelt, Journalist
The former Managing Editor of the Journal, Amy is associate editor for The Faster Times and This Week in Earth, a columnist for Forbes, and contributes to an assortment of other magazines and websites. In 2007, Amy won the Folio Eddie for excellence in magazine editorial for her feature on algae as a feedstock for biofuel, which was published in Sustainable Industries magazine.

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