Yielding to pressure from the meat and dairy industries, the Agriculture Department has abandoned its plans to turn the symbol of good nutrition from the "food wheel" showing the "Basic Food Groups" to an "Eating Right" pyramid that sought to deemphasize the place of meat and dairy products in a healthful diet.
The proposed change, hailed by many nutritionists as a long overdue improvement in the way the government encourages good eating habits, represented the basic groups as layers of a pyramid. By putting vegetables, fruits and grains at the broad base and meat and dairy products in a narrow band at the top, government health experts had hoped to create a more effective visual image of the proper proportions each food group should have in a healthful diet.
But in meetings with Agriculture officials earlier this month, representatives of the dairy and meat industries complained that the pyramid was misleading and "stigmatized" their products. The industry groups said they were unhappy not just with the suggestion that portions of meat and dairy products should be relatively small, but that their place in the pyramid was next to that of fats and sweets, the least healthful foods.
"We're not happy with the way we look" said Jeannine Kenney, a lobbyist with the National Milk Producers Federation, who said her group's concerns were one of the reasons the proposal was dropped.
Yesterday, a spokesman for Agriculture Secretary Edward Madigan confirmed the program had been killed.
It was the second time in recent months that a federal regulatory agency backed down from a public education effort in the face of an industry protest. In February the Environmental Protection Agency halted distribution of a popular handbook that advised consumers on safer, cheaper alternatives to commercial home-cleaning products. Protests had come from consumer products manufacturers.
"It was the visual that made the impact," said Columbia University Teachers College professor Joan Gussow, one of many nutritionists angered by the USDA reversal. "That's what upset people. It clearly showed you should not have as much meats and dairy products as you should grains, fruits and vegetables -- which is the truth."
"The lesson here is that the Department of Agriculture should not have primary responsiblity for nutrition education in this country," said Bonnie Liebman of the Center for Science in the Public Interest here. "USDA is just what the name says, the Department of Agriculture. It consistently puts the interests of the meat, egg and dairy industries ahead of the public's health."
The move by the Agriculture Department comes after its Health and Nutrition Information Service had spent more than a year developing a updated replacement for the traditional "food wheel," which has graced the walls of many American classrooms since the 1950s. The printer's proofs of brochures bearing the pyramid had already been produced, with the intention of publicly releasing the new graphic device later this spring.
Kelly Shipp, a spokeswoman for Madigan, said that the complaints of the dairy and meat industries were not the primary reason for the decision. Madigan, she said, was concerned that the pyramid was confusing to children. The department received a number of complaints from a range of industry and consumer groups.
"We weren't persuaded fully by any one of them," she said. "We were persuaded by all of them."
However, a number of nutritionists said that they were convinced that the industry complaints constituted the primary motivation for the action. According to Marion Nestle, chairman of the nutrition department at New York University and the author of a history of dietary guidelines, on several occasions over the past 15 years the department has altered or canceled nutritional advice brochures in response to industry complaints.
In 1981, for example, the Agriculture Department declined to publish a pamphlet entitled "Food/2," which urged Americans to eat less-fatty meat, lower-fat dairy products and fewer eggs in order to prevent heart disease and cancer. The reason given by then-Agriculture Secretary John Block was that there was not enough scientific evidence to support the pamphlet's conclusions. A similar thing happened with a 1979 pamphlet called "Hassle-free eating," Nestle said.
"There is a long history of this," she said. "The Agriculture Department is in the position of being responsive to the agriculture business. That is their job. Nutrition isn't their job. . . . When we wrote our history, I was impressed at how strongly the food industry has always been involved in dietary guidance."
What the cattlemen told Madigan about the "Eating Right Pyramid," for example, was that the hierarchical structure of the pyramid put their products in an unfair light.
"We told them we thought they were setting up good foods versus bad foods," said Alisa Harrison, director of information for the National Cattlemen's Association. Harrison said the group felt consumers would interpret the pyramid to mean they should "drastically cut down on their meat consumption."