WASHINGTON -- With the stakes in the billions of dollars, the process of deciding what the nation should eat -- always political -- is turning even more contentious.
A respected committee of doctors and nutrition experts is preparing to submit next month its five-year review of the federal government's dietary guidelines. Industry advocates are burying the panel under reams of statistics and studies that hail the benefits of eating red meat, consuming dairy products and drinking moderate amounts of alcohol.
A recent lawsuit by a health activist organization charges that six of the 11 panel members accepted research grants from organizations with ties to the dairy and meat industries.
The suit also charges that the panel -- which includes only one black and one Hispanic -- has been insensitive to the health needs of various minority groups, promoting milk consumption, for instance, when majorities of blacks, Asians and American Indians and half of Hispanics (compared with only 15 percent of whites) are shown by studies to be lactose-intolerant.
Walter C. Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, said the guidelines often flout what medical experts know to be true about the health risks of some food products. Those dangers tend to be drowned out because politically connected food industries have a stake in the outcome, he said.
"Everybody in food and agriculture is happy with the guidelines because they can see a part of themselves on the [food] pyramid," Willett said in a recent interview. "They're all in the game."
The game -- usually played with rival scientific studies and dueling nutritional experts -- escalated last month when the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Washington-based group that promotes vegetarianism, sued the federal government in an attempt to stop officials from accepting the advisory panel's report and prevent the release of the 2000 guidelines.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, names Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala as defendants and charges government officials with violating the law that bans special interests from exerting undue influence over federal advisory committees.
The group's leaders claim that six of the 11 advisory board members -- all of whom are distinguished academics in health, nutrition or medical sciences -- have what they describe as "inappropriate financial ties" to the meat, dairy or egg industries.
They note, for example, lectures given by some board members before the National Dairy Council and research grants that meat industry groups have given to the academic departments that employ the board members.
Of particular concern to the physicians' committee is the inclusion of milk and dairy foods as recommended daily sources of calcium. The group leaders argue that alternatives -- such as collards, kale and other dark, leafy green vegetables -- should be highlighted in the guidelines as an alternative to dairy products. Those vegetables are high in calcium and lack the side effects of dairy products, such as nausea and intestinal distress, that strike those allergic to them.
Noting widely known studies showing that 95 percent of Asian Americans, 65 percent of blacks, 65 percent of American Indians and 50 percent of Hispanics are lactose-intolerant, the suit concludes that the federal dietary guidelines are insensitive to racial and ethnic minorities.
"The interests of Caucasians are being put first," said Mindy Kursban, staff counsel for the physicians' group. "It's a form of rationalized racism that overlooks minority people's health concerns to sell more products produced by the meat, dairy and egg industries."
Agriculture Department officials disagree, saying that the process for setting the guidelines, which are due out next spring, is open and fair to all.
"It's not unusual for all sorts of people and groups to make comments to the panel and directly to the Agriculture Department," said Shirley Watkins, undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services. "We do have an obligation to promote American-grown agricultural products, but that's not in conflict with [setting] the dietary guidelines. We don't promote a particular product."
Watkins added that the guidelines, which establish the national standards for healthy eating and are the foundation for school lunch menus, elder care assistance and other public food programs, are just suggestions. People can choose from them as they decide what to eat.
Moreover, she said, federal officials can only tell Americans about the health benefits and costs of what they eat and cannot establish strict rules for every population group.
"We are not being racially biased in our decisions," said Watkins, who is black. "Do they want us to say that, if you're a person of color, like me, you can eat only some kinds of foods? I don't think so."