Here's the Federal Government's Big Chance to Improve Public Health and Reduce Animal Suffering - at the Same Time
Since 1980, the federal government has issued the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to offer input on what kinds of foods contribute to a healthy diet. Every five years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services appoint an advisory committee to revise and update the guidelines based on the most current science and dietary knowledge. The guidelines set nutrition standards for school lunch programs, federal assistance programs, the military and health professionals. They also serve as a tool to help American citizens choose foods to decrease the risk of disease and improve their overall health.
With the next five-year mark approaching soon, it's time for the guidelines to be renewed once again. Preparation for the 2020-2025 edition is officially underway, with the USDA and HHS seeking public comments on proposed topics and scientific questions related to various diets. The guidelines are solely focused on human health and disease prevention, but that doesn't mean they won't have an important impact on animals. In terms of consumer awareness, there is a large disconnect between how farm animals are raised and what ends up on our plate, but make no mistake: The choices we make every day about what to eat are indisputably intertwined with animal welfare.
Every year, more than 9 billion land animals are slaughtered for food. However, less than 1 percent of them are raised on pasture, with adequate space, fresh air, sunshine and the chance to interact with others of their kind. It would be very difficult—if not impossible—for the United States to raise billions of animals under these conditions. The result of such a high demand for animal products is that the majority of farm animals are raised in overcrowded warehouses where they're prone to chronic injury and illness and endure unimaginable suffering. To give all farm animals a life worth living, Americans need to reduce our consumption of their products. That means less meat, dairy and eggs.
Fortunately, what's beneficial for animals is also beneficial for human health—and this is where we come back around to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Countless studies have shown that consuming animal products on a daily basis is linked to obesity, cancer and diabetes, while a diet with a higher percentage of plant-based foods leads to lower blood pressure, longer life and decreased risk of disease.
In 2015, the World Health Organization classified processed meat as a carcinogen and red meat as a probable carcinogen. Since then, additional studies have further confirmed the link between processed and red meat and cancer in adults. In fact, one report comparing rates of cancer among vegetarians and meat eaters found that vegetarians had an 18 percent lower overall incidence of cancer than those who ate meat. Prevalence of diabetes is also significantly lower in vegetarians and vegan adults than in omnivores. A diet emphasizing plant-based foods can result in a 20 percent reduced risk of diabetes.
Plant-based eating is better for heart health, too. Vegetarians and vegans typically have lower cholesterol levels, and therefore lower incidence of heart disease, by as much as 24 percent in vegetarians and 57 percent in vegans compared to meat eaters. Those with vegetarian and vegan diets also typically show a lower prevalence of hypertension and a 29 percent lower ischemic heart disease mortality than meat eaters.
During the 2015-2020 cycle, the final version of the Dietary Guidelines identified the vegetarian diet as one of two healthy eating patterns to follow as an alternative to the "typical American pattern." While this was an important acknowledgment, the 2015-2020 edition failed to adequately emphasize the health benefits of eating fewer animal products and failed to include the advisory committee’s recommendations to reduce the amount of meat in the diet and to consider environmental sustainability as a factor. The committee's sustainability recommendation promoted diets higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal products because of the damaging environmental impacts of intensive factory farming which, of course, is also the cause of severe animal suffering.
This time around, the USDA and HHS have revised the guidelines process and are calling for public comment before the scientific advisory committee is formed, offering the public a chance for input earlier on in the process. They're asking for feedback on specific topics and scientific questions related to different dietary patterns, and the “vegetarian/vegan” diet type is one of the topics under consideration. The public comment period runs until March 30, at which point the USDA and HHS will put together a final list of topics and questions based on public input for the scientific advisory committee to review. This gives the public a unique opportunity to request new topics, or support suggested topics, such as the inclusion of vegetarian and vegan diets, before the advisory committee determines new priorities.
To curb the proliferation of harmful factory farms and animal cruelty, and for better human health, AWI has submitted a comment to the USDA and HHS, and we hope others will too. Reducing consumption of animal products and placing more emphasis on plant-based foods in the diet is directly linked to lower rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Through the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the USDA and HHS have a great opportunity to help Americans increase their overall health and well-being by prioritizing plant-based food options. And it just so happens that farm animals will benefit from this choice, too.