Meat Study Authors’ Ties to Meat Industry Exposed but the Food Confusion Remains
Talk about food confusion.
First the controversial meat study came out in the Annals of Internal Medicine that told Americans there was no real scientific evidence to link meat consumption to cancer or heart disease. It concluded that they should continue current levels of consumption of red meat and processed meat. Then the medical community reacted with a resounding cry of: Fake news, not true and don't listen to this new so-called research which has no new science to back it up.
Now, the second conflict of interest has been uncovered linking the study's authors to the meat industry, but unfortunately, the damage is done and the confusion has taken hold. Here is what happened this week: A new connection between the researchers and the meat industry came to light, linking the researchers to the Texas meat industry via Texas A&M. But as with so many second-day stories, the aftershocks that have undermined the study have not gotten nearly the same coverage as the original meat bomb itself.
Aftershock number one came a few days after the study was published in The Annals of Internal Medicine, when the study's lead author Bradley Johnston was identified as having past links to the food industry, having received funding for a sugar study in 2016 from a the International Life Sciences Institute, or ILSI, an industry trade group largely supported by food and pharmaceutical companies and whose members have included McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Cargill, the largest meat distributor in North America. That study told us to not worry about our sugar consumption. Johnston was careful to note in the meat study that he had no conflict in the past three years, not long enough to include the previous ILSI connection. But now another report in The Washington Post connects the study's authors even more directly to the meat industry, through Texas A&M, and its ties to the Texas beef ranchers who fund a research arm of the university.
The group of researchers that released the study calls itself NutriRECS, founded by Johnston, and the Post reported that NutriRECS has been funded by a research arm of Texas A&M, called AgriLife, and reports that AgriLife is funded in turn by Texas ranchers and beef farmers. AgriLife includes a beef cattle teaching program, educational workshops for cattle ranchers and promotion of Texas beef as a consumer product. The Post story adds: "The Texas Beef Checkoff program, an industry marketing arm paid for by the cattle ranchers themselves, has funded a number of AgriLife studies."
But of course, that part of the unfolding story -- the aftermath and the fact that the authors have current ties to the meat industry -- did not hit the morning shows, the front pages or the cocktail circuit. The reverberations of the "eat meat, it's fine" study were loud and clear. Everyone who ever cared about whether or not to cut back on meat for heart health or to reduce cancer risk emailed news reports of the study to each other, and it went viral. It was all anyone could talk about for two days. Yet something did not feel right. Harvard School of Public Health doctors warned the day the study came out that the conclusions “harm the credibility of nutrition science and erode public trust in scientific research.” And the tumult of reactions from doctors began to pile up. The American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society, Harvard School of Public Health and cardiologists and clinical practiioners issued statements standing by their prior recommendations to reduce meat consumption for overall health.
Now that the study's authors have been exposed as taking funding from the meat industry, it's clear we should pretend this so-called research never got released. But it's hard to put the genie back in the bottle. Until further scientific evidence actually shows something new, or eating guidelines worth listening to, we continue to believe the doctors who recommend leaning into plants as a way of eating healthy. A recent study found that a plant-based diet can reduce the risk of heart failure by 40 percent and that a mostly plant-based vegetarian diet has the same heart benefits to slow or reverse heart disease. Until further notice, our recommendation is: Eat more whole foods, more plant-based foods, less sugar and less processed food, and lower your intake animal protein to reduce risk of all premature death, according to studies. How to eat healthier? Check out the stories in the Getting Started section of The Beet.