Federal agencies are obscuring potential conflicts of interest among members of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee

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DGAC

CSPI says HHS and USDA need to link payments to individual members

The federal cabinet agencies charged with publishing the Dietary Guidelines for Americans are obscuring the potential financial conflicts of interest of the committee members whose report forms the scientific basis for the Guidelines.  

In late April, the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a list of the “relationships, activities, and interests that may potentially be related to the content” of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s scientific review. But the list of relationships is for the committee as a whole, and consequently none of the relationships are linked to individual members. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, that effectively obscures which members have which ties and does not provide the public with the information it deserves. 

The list of relationships includes grants, contracts, royalties, honoraria, travel expenses, board memberships and other relationships committee members have.  The list is based on voluntary, not mandatory, disclosures on the part of committee members. Many philanthropic organizations and universities are on the list, as are many federal and state agencies. So are many drug companies, such as Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk, and Pfizer, and several food industry organizations that might have a more direct stake in the committee’s work, such as Abbott Nutrition, the American Egg Board, Beyond Meat, the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, and the National Dairy Council. The value of these potential conflicts is not provided. 

In January, CSPI and 14 other organizations called on HHS and USDA to disclose potential financial conflicts of interest among the 20 members of the DGAC the agencies named earlier that month

“The agencies’ decision not to disclose potential conflicts on a member-by-member basis with dollar values is a poor outcome for both the public and the committee,” said CSPI president Dr. Peter G. Lurie. “Who, exactly has ties to the beef industry? Who has ties to the dairy industry? How much did they receive? The public and the press would have little idea based on this. And members of the committee who have no industry ties are unfairly lumped in with those who do.”  

CSPI says that HHS and USDA failed to follow the recommendations of a 2017 report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, requested by Congress to evaluate the Dietary Guidelines for Americans development process.  

According to HHS and USDA, the form the agencies used to collect potential conflict of interest information cannot be disclosed by statute. CSPI says the agencies should develop another form that would be subject to disclosure, which is what the Food and Drug Administration does to collect and disclose specific conflict of interest information among members of its advisory committees. This disclosure debate has gone on more than long enough for the agencies to have developed such a form, according to CSPI. 

“If the public is going to have confidence in the Dietary Guidelines, it must have trust in the process,” Lurie said. “This incomplete disclosure on the part of the agencies is an unforced error that they still have time to reverse.” 

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