On Tuesday, the House Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee heard USDA budget related testimony from Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, Kevin Concannon.
During his opening statement, Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt (R., Ala.) indicated that, “USDA’s nutrition programs account for 75 percent of total resources in the Agriculture Appropriations Bill. Your request for fiscal year 2016 is approximately $112.4 billion, a $2.1 billion increase above the fiscal year 2015 enacted level. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is USDA’s largest program serving more than 46 million people per month with a requested program level of $83.7 billion. For Child Nutrition Programs the President’s budget projects that total funding needs will approach $21.6 billion in fiscal year 2016 – a $2.2 billion increase since fiscal year 2014. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, accounts for the single largest discretionary program in the bill. The budget proposes level funding for WIC at $6.6 billion to meet the estimated 8.5 million participants each month.”
He added that, “The President’s budget proposes cuts to the crop insurance program, and Secretary Vilsack said in an interview that this proposal was a way to help keep projected farm bill savings on track. But in case the Administration missed it, farm bill nutrition savings are not materializing as projected either, so where in this budget is a proposal to ensure the nutrition savings stay on track?”
Chairman Aderholt also noted that, “And finally, I cannot stress enough the importance of your role in making sure the final 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans are strictly focused on dietary and nutrient recommendations. The most current science must be used and the statutory directive must be followed – and this goes beyond just sustainability and statements on meat consumption. While I appreciate Secretary Vilsack’s comments that he understands his role and he knows he has to follow the law – and Commissioner Hamburg from the Food and Drug Administration made similar statements two weeks ago – that message needs to be clear throughout the entire Administration.”
At the hearing, Under Secretary Concannon indicated that the Department would grant a short-term 30 day comment period extension for the report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.
More detail in this issue was fleshed out during the discussion portion of yesterday’s hearing:
Rep. Robert Aderholt: Thank you, Mr. Concannon. And certainly we appreciate the news about the 30 additional days to accept comments. That will be very helpful. As I mentioned, we had mentioned that in a hearing with the Secretary, and he was favorable to that, and of course wanted to speak with the Secretary of Health & Human Services, and we’re glad that that was able to be accomplished.
As you know, the dietary guidelines recommended by the advisory committee has drawn some criticism. I mean, that’s, I think, a proven fact. Both the Secretary of Ag Vilsack and the FDA Commissioner Hamburg testified before this subcommittee. And I pressed them to remember the law must be followed on all counts and revelant [sic] science must be considered.
Sec. Vilsack’s comments to the subcommittee was—and also in the hearing—would imply that he has somewhat distanced himself from some of the advisory committee’s recommendations. The Secretary is quick to point out that he doesn’t have latitude to opine about various issues, and he knows he has to color within the lines. I think that was his words.
However, based upon your testimony, it does not seem like you and the Secretary may be on the same page. Your testimony seems to defend the report by mentioning that it states that the quantity of meat to consume in the 2015 advisory report is the same as what is mentioned in the 2010 dietary guidelines. If that is true, then why didn’t the advisory committee simply restate the 2010 dietary guidelines without the extraneous commentary not directly related to the statutory mandate?
Mr. Concannon: Mr. Chairman, as I mentioned in the last few days meeting with members of Congress, the role of that Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is set out under charter authorized by law, and they are required to look at the prior, the 2010 dietary guidelines and raise a series of questions in terms of new science that may have occurred in the five year interval. Their recommendations, as I mentioned in my testimony, about the amount of meat consumed is basically the same, is the very same as the 2010 dietary guidelines.
And it’s important to note as well that the Dietary Guideline Advisory Committee, the scientific report is Part A. Part B will be the policy document that is developed by federal staff from the Department of Health & Human Services and the USDA. And we will also, that staff will also consider comments from the public as well as comments from industry.
But I think it’s important to note that the process that was followed, this Dietary Guideline Advisory Committee was the most transparent in the history of that process. All the hearings were broadcasted. Almost 1,000 people weighed in on each of them. All of the reports—there are a thousand pages of scientific reports that were posted on the web.
And at the end of the day, I am confident that the document that will be produced at the end of the year will reflect the core of science, the strongest science available, and it will not be subject to what I describe as a one off over here, a one off over there, what the American public is faced with when you read magazines or newspapers that recommend you do this or do that in terms of diet. This is going to be the core of science. I’m confident that that’s what will be published at the end of the day. I’m confident that that’s the commitment from both federal agencies.
Later in the hearing, this issue came up again and Rep. David Valadao (R., Calif.) had the following exchange with Under Secretary Concannon:
Rep. David Valada: Thank you, Chairman. Thank you, all of you, for taking some time out for us today. I wanted to follow up on the Chairman’s question about the guidelines. In a recent Wall Street Journal interview, while discussing sustainability and the dietary guidelines, Sec. Vilsack stated, “I read the actual law, and what I read was that our job ultimately is to formulate dietary and nutrition guidelines. And I emphasize dietary and nutrition because that’s what the law says, and I think it’s my responsibility to follow the law.”
So one, do you agree with the Secretary that sustainability is outside of the statutory scope of dietary guidelines? And in your view is the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee the proper group to analyze the environmental sustainability of agriculture production systems?
Mr. Concannon: [Inaudible.] Let me say that just the question of sustainability, the way the dietary guidelines operates is it begins by looking back at the 2010 guidelines, and then that independent scientific committee raises what’s called a series of questions. These are questions that should be reviewed and tested. The committee raised over 80 questions to the staff. There was a single question on sustainability.
So I think unfortunately, this is one of these things that I suspect members may be even subjected to at times, where the media jumps on something that may look like it’s a little out of sort, and overplays it, makes it look much larger than it really is. At the end of the day, at the end of the day, at the end of this calendar year, I am confident that the document, that the report that will be submitted by the two secretaries, will reflect just the core science that is required for food based recommendations of public health interest. That’s the charge to the committee.