Speaking at USDA’s Agricultural Outlook Forum 2004 in Arlington, Veneman said USDA will create new programs and use existing ones to try to make Americans more aware of the dangers of being overweight and eating less nutritious food.

In a radical departure from its usual emphasis on crop forecasts and market outlook, this year’s Forum theme, “Ensuring a Healthy Food Supply” is part of an attempt to begin reversing what is becoming an increasingly dangerous trend in America’s eating habits, according to the secretary.

“Overweightness and obesity are reaching crisis proportions not only in the United States but in countries around the world,” she said. “”Consider this: 65 percent of Americans today are overweight or obese. Of that, 31 percent are obese, which is double the rate from the year 1980, and the other 34 percent fall in the category of overweight.

“The number of severely obese has increased 300 percent since 1986. We are seeing some 300,000 Americans die every year from causes that are attributable to obesity, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and other illnesses.”

While obesity harms the health of many Americans, she said, it is also translating into high financial and social costs.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that obesity cost our economy $117 billion in the year 2000 - $61 billion in direct medical costs and $56 billion in lost productivity. The numbers undoubtedly are much higher today.”

She said half of those costs are born by taxpayers in the form of Medicare and Medicaid payments.

Veneman said past attempts to improve the American diet have not always produced the desired consequences, One of those was the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which advised us to reduce fat, cholesterol and sodium and increase consumption of fruits and vegetables.

“Between 1980 – when the guidelines were released – and 1999, total milk consumption declined an average of 15 percent per person; egg consumption declined 8 percent; and red meat consumption declined about 10 percent,” said Veneman.

“From 1980 to 2000 average annual fruit consumption rose 4 percent. Vegetable consumption rose 26 percent, but frozen fries, potato chips and iceberg lettuce made up a third of the total vegetable servings. Average consumption of sugar and caloric sweeteners increased 24 percent in the same period.”

It’s not for lack of trying that Americans are not losing weight.

“Sales trends show that Americans are shifting their purchasing habits and driving the marketplace in ways that they hope will help them lose weight,” said Veneman.

“But more than a quarter century after a Senate Select Committee’s report citing the need for national dietary guidelines, America is clearly losing the battle of the bulge and there is a profound and growing sense that our public health messages are not getting through.”

Over the past 20 years, she said, many Americans have made changes to match what they believe is consistent with good dietary advice: increase consumption of fruits, vegetables and grains and decrease consumption of fats and cholesterol.

“Despite those good intentions, what Americans have actually done, according to a recent Centers for Disease Control report, is to increase their intake of calories.”

The 1992 Food Guide Pyramid, which was created by USDA, was designed to help consumers better understand how to implement dietary recommendations, including the dietary guidelines.

“The evidence tells us that we need to do more to help consumers understand how they can make healthy decisions,” she said. “For example, a common complaint among Americans is still that they do not understand what constitutes an individual serving size.

“The result is portion sizes have grown larger, along with our collective waistline.”

USDA is now reviewing the Food Guide Pyramid to help consumers make better use of the dietary guidelines. One of the questions, the department is trying to answer is: “What are the appropriate calorie intake recommendations given America’s low level of physical activity?”

Last September, USDA published a review of the most up-to-date scientific data and proposed its interpretations based on that data. It will issue a proposal for public comment on the graphic and consumer information later this year with a final document being released in early 2005.

“In order to better examine the current knowledge and science regarding obesity, nutrition and diet behavior, I am pleased to announce that USDA will host a scientific conference in October with other federal agencies as partners, to specifically examine obesity prevention,” the secretary said.

“We are also co-sponsoring a separate conference next month that will examine the economics of obesity. And to better understand what we eat and why, the President’s budget for fiscal year 2005 proposes a study on the relationship between the food supply and consumer, knowledge, behavior and health.”

USDA will also make use of its food assistance programs, such as the School Lunch and the School Breakfast program, Food Stamps, the Women, Infants and Children program, all of which together, comprise about 60 percent of USDA’s total budget, to relay dietary guideline information.

“I have asked two of our undersecretaries, Joe Jen, who overseas our Research, Education and Economics area, and Eric Bost, who oversees our Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, to lead this important effort and provide recommendations on how we can more effectively leverage all of our nutrition education programs.”

In a press conference following her speech, the secretary said she did not agree with a recent television report that U.S. farm programs were contributing to the rise in the percentage of obese and overweight Americans.

“I thought that was a stretch,” she said. “There was some interesting information in the report, but I thought the conclusions it reached was a stretch.”

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com