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Fox News 29 out of Philadelphia published an online news article on May 2 with the headline “Physicians suing USDA claim dietary guidelines cater to meat, dairy industries, not health of Americans.”

The guidelines were developed for the period 2020-2025 by USDA in partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The advisory committee and writing teams consisted of medical doctors, Ph.D.s in nutrition, and dietary and public health specialists.

The guidelines contain recommendations for six major food groups: vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, proteins and oils. The committees working on the recommendations used a scientific approach that included data analysis of current eating habits, reviews of nutrition research and models of food and beverage intake and how they influence meeting nutritional needs.

Plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit are physicians who are members of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. They cite one study from Harvard’s School of Public Health that identifies an association between plant-based diets and lower incidence of Type 2 diabetes.

As someone with education and experience in statistical techniques, I can tell you that this research should not be enough to convince a federal judge to order USDA to retract dairy and meat protein portions of the guidelines. In fact, PCRM has sued USDA twice in the past after it released guidelines and both suits were dismissed.

From a statistical standpoint, findings of an association between two random variables does not mean there is a cause and effect relationship. It could be, but it is not necessarily, and more research of an experimental nature would have to be conducted to determine that.

All of the research citations I examined found associations, and not causal relationships, for relationships of both meat and dairy consumption to incidence of chronic diseases.

Note that I did not examine all published research or a large number of articles, but I did find that several meta-analyses (compilations of research results) noted that “some but not all studies” found associations, not causal relationships, or that results only indicated “a link” or a probability.

More Than Just Diet

So many factors go into development of chronic disease in an individual — genetics (including ethnicity and race) and eating habits such as portion control. Some individuals may have predispositions based on genetics that may create issues with ingestion of certain dairy or meat products. I think of lactose intolerance, a condition that affects quite a few Americans and is prevalent in people of color.

Lactose intolerance is cited by PCRM as something that is ignored by USDA within the dairy food group that is part of its nutritional guidelines. With lactose intolerance, there are available lactose-free dairy alternatives, as there are with other components of milk such as fat content.

USDA has attempted to respond to the latest lawsuit brought by PCRM by stating the facts about some of these alternatives and also that the guidelines are simply that — guidelines — to help point people to what is proper nutrition, and allowing for their own choices.

As partners in the dairy industry, we believe that education and promotion of the facts are crucial to individuals making their best choices about what food products to buy. Sensationalizing or over-rating the research results that point to associations between dairy products and chronic diseases is unfair and preys upon people’s lack of understanding of certain statistical terms. An association shows a relationship between variables but does not account for all of the other things that influence a research result.

We must do better. We must point out the inaccuracies of research reporting while acknowledging the facts.

The Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board supports proactive promotion of all the health benefits of consuming dairy products, and efforts to ensure that people are aware of the alternatives to traditional dairy products such as lactose-free and A2 beverages.

PMMB is always available to respond to questions and concerns. I can be reached at 717-210-8244 and by email at chardbarge@pa.gov.

Lancaster Farming

Carol Hardbarger is the secretary of the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board.

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