Abstract: Public Health or Industry Health? U.S. Government Responses to the 1970s Dietary Cholesterol–Heart Disease Controversy

Elizabeth Ann Semler


The dramatic rise of cardiovascular disease in the post–World War II United States spurred research into the causes of and treatments for the disease. Early evidence in the 1960s indicated diet's role in coronary risk, and prompted the American Heart Association to recommend lower fat and cholesterol diets. The U.S. egg industry grew concerned that these recommendations would affect sales, and in 1973 they released a series of advertisements that attempted to undermine the dietary cholesterol–heart disease link through distortions of scientific evidence and knowledge. Shortly thereafter the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, focused on the potential public health ramifications of the ads, pursued the industry for false and misleading advertising. Concurrent with the FTC's trial, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sponsored a market research program that sought to support and expand the egg industry. This paper thus explores the multiple, and often conflicting, roles that the American government has to play. In this case, it was both a protector of public health and a protector of the health and vitality of industry and economy. This paper argues that the USDA's oversight of a program that worked to expand the consumer base of a potentially hazardous food put business needs before those of the American people. Ultimately, the federal government prioritized industry welfare over that of public health.