red meat

Lead researcher of pro-meat study has ties to meat industry

Recently a paper was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine that denied any link between consumption of red and processed meat and an increased risk of cancer and other health problems. In general, the authors argued that red and processed meat are healthy, despite a longstanding scientific consensus suggesting otherwise.

When I heard about the study, my first reaction was : Who financed it? Recall that as evidence mounted regarding the harmful effects of smoking, the tobacco industry commissioned “scientific” studies that questioned the correlation between cigarettes and lung cancer, heart disease, stroke, etc. It would be very surprising if similar efforts weren’t made by the meat industry as we continue to learn more about the health consequences of meat consumption.

Well, the red-meat-is-healthy study may not have been funded by the North American Meat Institute, but its lead author has ties to the meat industry. Surprise, surprise.

The New York Times reports that Dr. Bradley C. Johnston, an epidemiologist at Dalhousie University in Canada, led a December 2016 study that pushed back against the idea that sugar is detrimental to human health. “That study, which also appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine, was paid for by the International Life Sciences Institute, or ILSI, an industry trade group largely supported by agribusiness, food and pharmaceutical companies and whose members have included McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Cargill, one of the largest beef processors in North America.”

The ILSI is known for its attempts to discredit settled science on behalf of corporate interests.

Dr. Johnston’s excuse for not disclosing this conflict of interest is pretty weak: “That money was from 2015 so it was outside of the three year period for disclosing competing interests. I have no relationship with them whatsoever.”

That may be true, but, as a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University pointed out, Johnston’s “previous paper suggests that [he] is making a career of tearing down conventional nutrition wisdom.”

The meat study has received widespread criticism from experts and scientists who argue its methodology was flawed. An article on the Harvard School of Public Health website provides a detailed breakdown of Johnston’s research. Below are the main conclusions:

“The new guidelines are not justified as they contradict the evidence generated from their own meta-analyses. Among the five published systematic reviews, three meta-analyses basically confirmed previous findings on red meat and negative health effects.

“The publication of these studies and the meat guidelines in a major medical journal is unfortunate because following the new guidelines may potentially harm individuals’ health, public health, and planetary health. It may also harm the credibility of nutrition science and erode public trust in scientific research. In addition, it may lead to further misuse of systematic reviews and meta-analyses, which could ultimately result in further confusion among the general public and health professionals.

“This is a prime example where one must look beyond the headlines and abstract conclusions. It is important for journalists, health professionals, and researchers to look beyond the sensational headlines and even the abstracts of the papers to verify the evidence behind the claims. It’s also crucial to understand that nutrition research is a long and evolving process, and therefore critical to look at the totality of the evidence.

“These studies should not change current recommendations on healthy and balanced eating patterns for the prevention of chronic diseases. Existing recommendations are based on solid evidence from randomized controlled studies with cardiovascular risk factors as the outcomes, as well as long-term epidemiologic studies with cardiovascular disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and mortality as outcomes. To improve both human health and environmental sustainability, it is important to adopt dietary patterns that are high in healthy plant-based foods and relatively low in red and processed meats.”