The American Journal of Public Health has named as an article of the year, “McGovern’s Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs versus the Meat Industry on the Diet-Heart Question (1976-1977)” published in the January issue.
Written by Dr. Gerald Oppenheimer, professor at the School of Public Health, City University of New York and professor of clinical sociomedical sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, and by Dr. Daniel Benrubi, University of Florida College of Medicine, Jacksonville, the article employs a historical case study to analyze evidentiary uncertainty in science and the limits of evidence-based public health.
In 1977, enough consensus existed among epidemiologists and leading nutritionist that the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, headed by Senator George McGovern, used the diet–heart associationto perform an extraordinary act: advocate dietary goals for Americans. This was the first comprehensive statement by any branch of the federal government on risk factors for chronic disease in the American diet. After the initial report, the meat industry and other scientists contested that consensus. Consequently, in one year, the committee produced two editions of its Dietary Goals for the United States, the second containing a conciliatory statement about coronary heart disease and meat consumption. Critics have characterized that revision as a surrender to special interests. But the senators faced issues for which they were professionally unprepared: conflicts within science over the interpretation of data and notions of proof. Specifically, there were disputes within the nutrition profession and debates that divided scientific disciplines, medical practitioners, and leading bureaucrats within the National Institutes of Health, debates over what constituted sufficient evidence, for whom, and with what subsequent consequences. The epidemiologists and nutritionists who supported the diet–heart hypothesis could not successfully convince, coopt, or undermine their scientific opponents. Ultimately, it was lack of scientific consensus on these factors, not simply political acquiescence, that allowed special interests to secure changes in the guidelines.