Meat Wars Heat Up: Lobbyists Have It In for Plant-Based Meat Alternatives
On November 2, USAToday treated readers to an op-ed entitled, “Let them eat steak: Hold the shame, red meat is not bad for you or climate change.” The piece, written by Will Coggin, managing director of the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), was just one part of a multi-pronged campaign by CCF to undermine consumer’s beliefs in the health and environmental benefits of plant-based meats. The group has also run an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, ads in the Journal and the New York Post, created a website called cleanfoodfacts.com and conducted almost daily outreach to journalists.
So who is CCF? According to its website, it’s a nonprofit “devoted to promoting personal responsibility and protecting consumer choice.” Its executive director Rick Berman, president of PR and lobbying firm Berman and Company, is well-known for his tactic of starting nonprofits to aggressively attack activists and public interest groups whose claims run contrary to the goals of his corporate clients. Speaking as a nonprofit, instead of a PR firm or a corporation, gives the information his company disseminates a veneer of neutrality and authority. Plus, there’s another compelling benefit: nonprofits do not have to disclose their donors, so corporations can support these campaigns without being identified.
In reality, these nonprofits are not separate from Berman’s for-profit company. According to Charity Navigator, Berman is the CEO of his nonprofits, which include CCF, Employment Policies Institute Foundation, American Beverage Institute, and many others. They all live at the same address as his PR firm, and each charity pays Berman and Company for services. “We find the practice of a charity contracting for management services with a business owned by that charity's CEO atypical when compared to how other charities operate,” says the site, which has flagged all the charities as of “moderate concern.”
Each nonprofit set up by Berman is meant to battle a specific set of issues. According to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which itself is a Berman target, CCF is also known as the Center for Organizational Research and Education and was initially called the Guest Choice Network. Philip Morris provided the seed money. Still, the group has since evolved beyond fighting smoking bans and “seeks to undermine public support for greater food-labeling, food-safety, and anti-obesity proposals…. Claiming to act in the name of consumer freedom and choice, CCF attacks the credibility of public health advocates, academics, and medical experts.”
An examination of CCF’s 2017 990 form, which nonprofits file annually, shows the organization managed fourteen sites that year, all attacking food, environmental, and animal interests, including activistfacts.com, humanewatch.com, petakillsanimals.com, environmentalpolicyalliance.org, biggreenradicals.com, accountablescience.com, epafacts.com, and greendecoys.com.
“CCF is a dark money front group that is widely considered one of the sleaziest organizations and spewers of disinformation,” says Rachel Konrad, spokesperson for Impossible Foods. “The fact that they are going after us is actually the ultimate validation that big beef believes plant-based meats are an existential threat.”
Here’s a breakdown of the claims CCF is making:
Claim 1: Decreasing red meat consumption has little to no effect on reducing the risk of heart disease, cancer, or stroke.
Coggin bases this contrary claim on research from a consortium called NutriRECs and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine (AIM). The group re-analyzed data from existing nutrition studies to determine the links between eating red and processed meat and life-threatening conditions. They also did a review of people’s beliefs and preferences regarding meat consumption. In all, they released six papers that collectively challenge current recommendations from the World Health Organization, American Heart Association, and the American Cancer Society to limit red and processed meats.
The CCF op-ed neglects to mention the controversy surrounding this research. It began even before the papers published, in response to AIM's press release touting the analysis with this sensational headline: “New guidelines: No need to reduce red or processed meat consumption.” The True Health Initiative (THI), a global coalition of experts dedicated to preventing disease through lifestyle changes and medicine, wrote to the editor expressing its concerns with the press release and the research. The editor agreed to reissue the release. The group followed up with a second letter signed by 14 prominent scientists, doctors, and professors asking to see the revision and restating its request that AIM “preemptively retracts publication of these papers pending further review by your office.” One of the signers, John Sievenpiper, MD, Ph.D., FRCPC, associate professor, Department of Nutritional Sciences, University of Toronto, actually participated in the NutriRECs research but believes the conclusions were wrong.
Around this same time, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a nonprofit public health advocacy organization, and another Berman target filed a petition with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to stop AIM from publishing.
But publish they did.
Healthy eating advocates swiftly responded, pointing out the importance of looking beyond the hyperbolic headlines of the media coverage. Many noted that NutriRECs findings and the researchers' conclusions seemed at odds. Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health said: “Among the five published systematic reviews, three meta-analyses basically confirmed previous findings on red meat and negative health effects.” And the American Institute for Cancer Research wrote: “The NutriRECs research results are not significantly different from what World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research’s 2018 report found, and indeed seem to verify WCRF/AICR’s findings. However, the NutriRECs researchers have made what is a confusing interpretation of the results, which has led to this unnecessary recommendation to the public.”
Others, such as THI, questioned the methodology used, “The Annals analyses are not a new development in science, they are simply using an ill-fitting measuring tool (GRADE), which is built to evaluate pharmaceuticals and not lifestyle intervention.”
According to one of the NutriRECs co-authors, Dr. Gordon Guyatt, a distinguished university professor in the faculty of health sciences at McMaster University, who helped develop GRADE, the tool was created to distinguish what is true from what is speculative or untrue. Since not all types of research are the same when it comes to showing cause and effect, how we know what we know is not equal across all fields of health inquiry. GRADE ranks studies by the quality of the evidence they produce. Randomized clinical trials (RCTs)—in which there is a test and control group—are deemed by GRADE to be of high quality because the only variable is what is being tested. Observational studies are considered to be of lower quality because they rely on self-reporting. Nutrition studies are often observational because diet and health are so tied up in overall lifestyle; there are simply too many variables to control for. Also, it takes years to see the health effects of what we eat—too long a time to sequester and monitor someone.
Even so, some of the most well-respected nutrition RCTs were left out of NutriRECs analysis because they didn’t meet the eligibility requirements for length of time or differences in the amount of meat eaten by the control and test groups. “I think the nicest word to explain it is arbitrary,” says registered dietician Susan Levin, the director of nutrition education for PCRM.
Shortly after publication, the New York Times found the lead on the study had some undisclosed conflicts of interest. Bradley C. Johnston, an epidemiologist at Dalhousie University in Canada, “was the senior author on a similar study that tried to discredit international health guidelines advising people to eat less sugar. 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.”
Claim 2: Lean beef burger has an average of nearly 20% fewer calories and 80% less sodium than the two most popular fake-meat burgers, the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger.
Less fat in a burger makes it drier. While the op-ed uses a burger that is 90% lean (so-called 90/10) as the basis for comparison, chances are the burgers people eat (and the ones they are looking to replace) are 80/20, which is the ratio of lean-to-fat chef Bobby Flay recommends for the juiciest burger. Here is that comparison:
- 4oz 80/20 patty: 80 mg cholesterol, 23 grams of total fat, 9 g of saturated fat, and 290 calories.
- 4oz Impossible Burger: 0 mg cholesterol, 14 grams of total fat, 8 g of saturated fat, and 240 calories.
- 4oz Beyond Burger: 0 mg cholesterol, 19 grams of total fat, 6 g of saturated fat, and 250 calories.
For a full comparison, check out the beet chart comparing nutrients in meat patties versus plant-based alternatives here.
While the plant-based meats have fewer calories, zero cholesterol, and fewer saturated fats, beef does have less sodium—3 percent of the recommended daily allowance compared to 16 percent for both the Beyond and Impossible Burgers.
Of note, in response to customer concerns about sodium, Impossible introduced a newer formulation in January 2019, which has 30 percent less than its predecessor.
“Big picture, we do not and have not and will not identify the product or market the product as a health food,” says Impossible Foods Konrad. “We wanted to make a product that satisfies true omnivores or carnivores. We market this product as a juicy, delicious alternative for meat lovers, one that is at least as nutritious as the product it replaces.”
Claim #3 Fake meat is an “ultra-processed” food, filled with unpronounceable ingredients.
Says registered dietician Levin: “We call plant-based alternatives transition foods. Are they as healthful as eating whole beans? No, but we want to get people to good, to better, to best. The American diet is not good. If we can transition people up the ladder and get them thinking about healthier alternatives, that’s great.”
Konrad points out that much of the food we eat, including bread and yogurt, is a marriage of science of nature. Plus, she says, “there is nothing natural about ground beef from cows. It starts with artificial insemination. Cows are fed a lifetime of hormones and antibiotics. They are killed in a slaughterhouse rife with fecal contaminates, processed in a plant, and trucked in a freezer truck to your grocery store. There is nothing natural about it except the red barn door and grass depicted on the label.”
Claim # 4 Meat production is a relatively minor contributor to our overall GHG levels.
With 2019 on course to be the second or third warmest year on record, according to the World Meteorological Organization, every little bit matters. In 2017, greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture economic sector accounted for 9 percent of total US emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That is an increase of 8.8 percent since 1990. It’s also not the full picture. Management of croplands and grasslands can also lead to emissions, but the EPA counts those in another sector called Land Use, Land-Use Change, and Forestry. Worldwide, agriculture is responsible for 24 percent of GHGs.
Of course, GHGs are just one part of the climate impact. There is growing concern that industrial meat production contaminates water with animal waste and that raising livestock leads to deforestation. According to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, cattle ranching is the most significant driver of deforestation in every Amazon country, accounting for 80 percent of current rates.
Says Konrad: “Beef has no option to make their product better, so they have to go on a soviet style disinformation propaganda campaign to try to taint plant-based meat. It’s a classic move by a desperate incumbent on the wrong side of history. And it’s sad, honestly. The shift to a plant-based diet is inevitable.”