Washington Insider-Wednesday

New Fight Over Sugar Research

Here's a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN's well-placed observer.

Trump Meets Another Potential USTR

JCR Group CEO Jovita Carranza, a former UPS executive and official in George W. Bush's administration, is under consideration to be Donald Trump's pick for U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), Trump spokesman Jason Miller said Tuesday. Carranza met with President-elect Trump in Florida.

On trade, Trump sees his choice to lead the Commerce Department, Wilbur Ross, as playing a big role in directing his administration's trade policy, Miller said on a conference call. There is no talk, though, about merging the Office of the USTR with the Commerce Department. The USTR "will be its own entity," Miller said.

During the conference call Miller said: "Commerce Secretary-designate Wilbur Ross will ultimately direct much of the administration's trade policy at the direction of President-elect Trump. Mr. Ross not only has negotiated some very good deals over his lifetime, he's also the person who worked closely with the president-elect on crafting his trade policy over the administration, but that's someone who will be very intimately involved with setting much of the overall direction. But I can tell you that there's no talk of the U.S. trade rep's office being merged into Commerce. That still will be its own entity and they'll still be performing all the functions that the U.S. trade rep normally would do. But Mr. Ross will be playing a big role in any trade particulars in this administration."

Carranza was former Small Business Administration deputy administrator under the Bush administration.

Other potential USTR picks include Robert Lighthizer, who met with Trump on Monday.

EPA Stance on Nutrient Standards for Gulf Waters Upheld by Court

A federal district court in Louisiana ruled the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) refusal to impose nitrogen and phosphorus standards to prevent oxygen-depleted "dead zones" in the Gulf of Mexico was "grounded in statute."

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana upheld the EPA's rationale in its denial of the petition by the Gulf Restoration Network, a coalition of environmental groups, that sought stricter limits on nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the waters flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.

Rather than having the EPA impose time- and resource-intensive water quality standards for nitrogen and phosphorus, the agency said greater progress would be made by working cooperatively with Gulf states and Native American tribes.

"This Court is convinced that the Denial, which again is grounded primarily on EPA's assessment that working in partnership with the States to reduce nutrient pollution would be a more effective approach at present, is sufficiently 'grounded in the statute,'" Judge Jay Zainey wrote in a December 15 opinion.

Washington Insider: New Fight Over Sugar Research

The New York Times featured prominently on its business page on Tuesday an article that sharply criticized "a prominent medical journal" article attacking the quality of global health advice regarding sugar consumption. The report asserted that warnings to cut sugar are based on weak evidence and cannot be trusted.

The report, published in a respected Journal, The Annals of Internal Medicine, drew heavy fire from food and nutrition experts concerning the authors' ties to the food and sugar industries. The report came from the International Life Sciences Institute, a group that is funded heavily by well-known multinational food and agrochemical companies. Also, one of the authors is a member of the scientific advisory board of Tate & Lyle, one of the world's largest suppliers of high-fructose corn syrup.

Critics called the review the latest in a series of efforts by the food industry to shape global nutrition advice by supporting prominent academics who question the role of junk food and sugary drinks in causing obesity, type 2 diabetes and other health problems. In addition, the Times cited food "experts" who called the report "reminiscent of tactics once used by the tobacco industry," which for decades enlisted scientists to become "merchants of doubt" about the health hazards of smoking.

For example, widely respected scientist, Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University who studies conflicts of interest in nutrition research asserted that "this comes right out of the tobacco industry's playbook: cast doubt on the science," she said "This is a classic example of how industry funding biases opinion. It's shameful."

Still, the scientists behind the paper argued that more scrutiny of sugar guidelines was needed. They reviewed guidelines issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) and eight other agencies around the world and said the case against sugar was based on "low-quality" evidence.

"The conclusion of our paper is a very simple one," said Bradley Johnston, a professor of clinical epidemiology at the University of Toronto and McMaster University and the lead author of the paper. Dr. Johnston said he recognized that the report would be criticized because of its industry funding. But he said he hoped people would not dismiss his conclusion that sugar guidelines should be developed with greater rigor.

The Times noted that the new report comes as health authorities around the world are increasingly taking steps to curb the amount of sugar consumption. Last year, the WHO said adults and children should restrict their intake of sugar from most foods -- other than fruit, vegetables and milk -- to 10% of their daily calories. In the United States, six local governments approved taxes on soft drinks recently, NYT says. And in Britain, the health agency Public Health England called for strict limits on daily sugar intake.

However, the Annals review gave poor ratings to all of the sugar guidelines it evaluated calling them "low to very low" in terms of scientific quality. It called them generally not transparent about how the recommendations were reached and that most of them failed to include disclosures about potential conflicts of interest among their authors.

Some scientists like Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, were especially critical that the paper was published at all because it "ignored the hundreds of randomized controlled trials" that have documented the harms of sugar.

"They ignored the real data, created false scores, and somehow got through a peer review system that I cannot understand," he said. Dr. Christine Laine, editor in chief of The Annals of Internal Medicine, defended the journal's decision to publish and argued that the journal made decisions based on the quality of the research, not the source of funding.

"We thought the methods of the systematic review were high quality," Dr. Laine said. Dr. Dean Schillinger, chief of the University of California, San Francisco, division of general internal medicine at San Francisco General Hospital, said that it was fine to question the quality of nutrition guidelines and to hold them to high standards but that in this case, the researchers and their financial backers had an obvious agenda.

Other experts agreed with the study's point that more rigor was needed in issuing nutrition guidelines but said the current guidelines should go much further.

So, the new study likely will make its point, but likely won't change the debate much. Defining the ideal consumption limit of sweeteners is always tricky and difficult. It will be interesting to see whether this study can overcome expert charges about an "agenda" and make a stronger case for increasingly rigorous studies of food consumption guides and better ways to deal with the US obesity epidemic. And, it will be important to note how well the current review stands up to the storm of criticism that is already building, Washington Insider believes.

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