TWO INDUSTRY publications were distributed at a USDA-sponsored food and fitness fair held on the Mall last week despite a finding by U.S. Department of Agriculture staff nutritionists who reviewed them for nutritional accuracy that the information was "either outdated, incomplete or in conflict" with a videotape produced by USDA for the fair.
In an internal memo to Isabel Wolf, administrator of USDA's Human Nutrition Information Service, the staffers commented on what they saw as numerous problems with the booklets, saying they were not "suitable for distribution at a USDA sponsored food and fitness event . . . "
One of the booklets, "Better Body Book," published by the Atlantic Dairy Association, was also promoted by the Middle Atlantic Milk Marketing Area in a radio spot, which said the pamphlet was available free at the USDA event. The ad was paid for by the dairy group, according to George Trapp, USDA coordinator of the fair. The radio spot said the ad was cosponsored by the Milk Marketing Area and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "The principal purpose of the ad was to talk about the fair," Trapp said. Saying he was aware of the staff criticisms of the booklet, he emphasized that USDA was not putting its stamp of approval on any of the booklets on the Mall.
The fair was the kickoff for a year-long, nationwide campaign focusing on the theme that American agriculture provides an abundant and varied food supply, and that wise selection of this food, along with a sound physical fitness program, is the key to maintaining good health.
The fair, and the entire campaign, is a joint venture among USDA and private industry groups, including many commodity groups, who are footing the bill for many of the activities. Groups such as the American Sheep Producers Council, the American Egg Board and the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association staffed tents on the Mall during the three-day event, passing out free food samples and plenty of industry-published food and nutrition information.
USDA's Wolf acknowledged the staff criticism of the booklets, but said USDA cannot assume responsibility for all the materials distributed at the fair. "We are not setting up a nutrition censorship system," she maintained, saying department officials told exhibitors they expected the materials to "have some type of professional integrity."
The booklets were reviewed at the request of the industry groups, she added, who wanted USDA to cosponsor the material. According to Trapp, some groups wanted USDA's "stamp of approval" on their booklets, but none were ever produced with USDA's logo because of production problems. Trapp said one booklet produced by the Grocery Manufacturers of America and reviewed in the internal memo "almost got close to press" after GMA agreed to make USDA-requested changes, but was held up because of production delays.
The memo by USDA staff nutritionists on the dairy association booklet criticized the "disproportionate number of servings" for dairy products recommended for men and women in the pamphlet. For example, a chart in the booklet says women should have four servings of milk, and men five. "If a woman were to choose four servings, one and a half cups each, of skim milk, she would have six cups of milk, far more than the approximately two cups usually recommended per day for adults to meet calcium recommendations," the memo said. The booklet also listed cottage cheese as part of the protein group, but the nutritionists said cottage cheese and other cheeses "are not good sources of iron and other important nutrients found in meats."
Wolf acknowledged that there was a "little heavy emphasis" on milk in the dairy booklet, but asked, "What would you expect?" Most industry publications on nutrition give heavier emphasis to the products they are promoting, she noted.
Bonnie Liebman, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer group, agreed. "Of course the industry is going to push their own products. The point is, USDA shouldn't be distributing materials the agency knows are misleading, and shouldn't be cosponsoring ads that encourage consumers to come get a copy of this deceptive booklet."
CSPI distributed a press release at the fair, charging it was "little more than a commodity expo for food producers." The group pointed to "misleading claims" in other publications available at the fair: A booklet from the American Lamb Council stated that no positive link has been found between an increased rate of heart disease and a diet high in saturated fat, and a calorie content listing of luncheon meats from the American Meat Institute used serving sizes only half as large as the portions commonly consumed by Americans.
Private sector contributions for both the fair and the year-long campaign are $300,000 to $350,000, said Trapp. He said the National Pork Producers Council has produced and paid for public service announcements featuring Secretary of Agriculture John Block. Another group may sponsor a second series of public service spots, according to Trapp.
The department is exploring the possibility of publishing a complete guide to private sector publications on nutrition. The guide would be available to every school in the country, Trapp said. USDA would not endorse any of the material. But the question of which group will put up money for the publication remains, he added, saying such a guide would be the "ultimate private/public sector cooperative" effort.