(Jan. 12) Health and nutrition — especially obesity — continue to be big news, not only making The Packer’s top 10 list for 2003, but also hitting No. 1 on U.S. newspaper and magazine food editors’ list of top food-related stories.

The obesity story ranked in the year’s top three with virtually every respondent to a survey of more than 1,300 food editors, according to conducting agency Hunter Public Relations, New York.

Three popular diets — the Atkins, the South Beach and the Mediterranean — also made the list, along with congressional efforts to require restaurants to provide nutritional information on menus.

And so, with all that in the news, the U.S. Department of Agriculture may be revising its food guide pyramid, along with the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s investigations into revising U.S. dietary guidelines for Americans, as mandated every five years by federal law.

USDA officials are scheduled to meet with the committee Jan. 28-29 to discuss comments received on potential pyramid changes.

Stakeholders in the nutrition industry, as well as the produce industry, are all too aware that the USDA’s process is affected — if not downright ruled, cynics might say — by political motivations.

But too much is at stake in this issue for the political forces to override the best science available.

New study results published in the January issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine indicate that U.S. teenagers have higher rates of obesity than those of 14 other industrialized nations.

The obesity rate among U.S. 15-year-olds reached 15% for girls and 14% for boys based on questionnaires filled out in 1997 and 1998. Additionally, 31% of girls and 28% of boys were overweight to a lesser degree.

These are not trivial statistics, especially when you pair them with obesity rates among adults in this country.

The USDA cannot afford to take its role in combating this epidemic lightly.

Political agendas must be put aside to foster a common-sense approach to improving the health outlook for American citizens.

The produce industry should be a clear voice in this process, with the indisputable health benefits provided by a diet rich in fruits and vegetables at the center of the available information.

Those providing advice to government on the topic should call on sound, neutral research, carefully avoiding the taint of politics in recommending changes. Otherwise, those on the listening — and policy-making — end will have no choice but to lump produce with politically motivated assertions, to the detriment of the industry and the American public.

That would be a shame.