The nutrition research group whose recent study drew heavy attention for downplaying the risks of red meat has received funding from a university program partially backed by the beef industry.
The study in the well-respected Annals of Internal Medicine rocked the nutrition world by suggesting the negative health effects of red and processed meat had been overstated. The international group of researchers, headed by Bradley C. Johnston, an epidemiologist at Dalhousie University in Canada, concluded that warnings linking meat consumption to heart disease and cancer are not backed by good scientific evidence. The group, which calls itself NutriRECS, recommended meat eaters continue their current levels of consumption.
But undisclosed in the study was that NutriRECS, a consortium of about 20 researchers, has also formed a partnership with an arm of Texas A&M University partially funded by the beef industry. The omission is the latest twist in an ongoing debate about how much researchers ought to disclose to the public about potential conflicts of interest.
In April, Johnston announced the Agriculture and Life Sciences (AgriLife) program at Texas A&M would join the NutriRECS consortium and provide “generous support” to NutriRECS. AgriLife includes a beef cattle teaching program, educational workshops for cattle ranchers and promotion of Texas beef to consumers. The Texas Beef Checkoff program, an industry marketing arm paid for by the cattle ranchers themselves, has funded a number of AgriLife studies.
Patrick Stover, vice chancellor and dean of AgriLife and one of the authors on the Annals study, defended the NutriRECS-AgriLife financial connection. He recently convinced Johnston to move from Dalhousie to the nutrition program at Texas A&M, which included new funding for Johnston and NutriRECS. But Stover says the meat study work had been completed before this new funding.
Beef, Stover says, represents a tiny fraction of research at AgriLife.
“AgriLife has done $170 million in research in 2019, $4.5 million in beef, half of that from federal sources like the USDA, the other half from industry groups. That’s a small part of our portfolio,” he said. “We work very carefully to make sure there’s no undue influence from any commodity group on this report.”
Johnston did not respond to questions about any beef industry connections but defended the study as providing critical information for people about the health consequences of eating meat. “I hope you can focus on the bigger picture, including the science and what the public should know about red and processed meat, so that they can make their own decisions,” he said via email. “You might also look at the intellectual and financial conflicts of our adversaries.”
But critics argued the connection should have been disclosed.
“Of course that institution [AgriLife] is tightly tied with the cattle industry,” says Walter Willett, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and a staunch critic of the NutriRECS meat study. “It is inconceivable that Stover’s involvement in this project was by chance or because Stover had expertise in this area. ... There were clearly huge conflicts of interest that readers should have known about.”
The Annals of Internal Medicine says it requires authors to “disclose all active and inactive financial and intellectual interests related to health care,” though Christine Laine, editor in chief, declined to say whether the NutriRECS partnership with AgriLife should have been disclosed. She said if there was a funding source for this study that was not reported, the journal would have to publish a correction.
“I’m not aware of any relationship between AgriLife and NutriRECS,” she said. “Would we retract the paper? No. A lot of the drug trials have industry funding. Conflicts of interest is just one potential source of bias.”
Other concerns have been raised about the study since its publication Sept. 30.
Last week, the New York Times published a story that revealed Johnston had not disclosed a conflict of interest on a similar study in 2016 in the Annals of Internal Medicine that aimed to debunk sugar consumption’s association with health risks. The study had been paid for by the International Life Sciences Institute, which has been financially supported by companies such as McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Cargill.
“That money was from 2015 so it was outside of the three year period for disclosing competing interests,” Johnston told Times. “I have no relationship with them whatsoever.”
Besides, he said, that has no bearing on a red meat study.
Commodity checkoff programs are responsible for familiar ad campaigns such as “Got milk?” or “Pork, the other white meat.” Collecting $750 million a year from producers to research and promote products, they are overseen by the USDA. These programs are, by law, not permitted to try to influence federal policy. But some experts see that risk in the new meat study, whose title is “Unprocessed Red Meat and Processed Meat Consumption: Dietary Guideline Recommendations."
David Katz, the founding director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale, said the study seems designed to influence the 2020 Dietary Guidelines. Katz says the study is trying to cast doubt on a growing body of negative research on red and processed meat.
Katz says the Annals of Internal Medicine has always represented the highest standards of medical ethics. While he doesn’t believe the NutriRECS authors are “serving some Big Ag master, they are looking for attention. This is about weaponizing science so it blows up understanding rather than advancing it.”
One of the study’s other authors, Regina El Dib, is an assistant professor at the Institute of Science and Technology at Estadual Paulista University in Brazil. She has received a Sao Paulo Research Foundation scholarship and funding from the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development.
Brazil is the world’s largest beef exporter, providing 20 percent of total global beef exports, and home to JBS S.A., a Brazilian company that is the largest meat-processing firm in the world.
Reached via email, El Dib said there is no financial or intellectual conflict of interest.
“São Paulo Research Foundation is also a governmental organization that helps many professors/researchers with their professional scientific career and to conduct their research. I received FAPESP money to spend six months as a visiting professor at Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS, Canada last year, mainly, to assist in the development of the systematic review of randomized control trials of red meat.”
John Sievenpiper, an associate professor in the department of nutrition science at the University of Toronto and one of the authors on a study included as part of the broader Annals paper, says there’s a lot of gray area in the interpretation of conflicts of interest. He signed a letter with a larger group of authors that called for the work to be held pending further review, disagreeing with the conclusions and guidelines piece of it.
“Industry funding can pose significant issues that cloud the objectivity of findings,” says David Goldman, chief science adviser for a new documentary called “The Game Changers.” “While it would be unreasonable to suggest that industry-funded research shouldn’t be allowed, it’s absolutely critical that there be full transparency about this funding and any related conflicts of interest.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that the Sao Paulo Research Foundation and the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development received funding from Brazilian meat company, JBS. The institutions receive no funding from the company. The story has been updated.
Laura Reiley is the business of food reporter. She was previously a food critic at the Tampa Bay Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Baltimore Sun. She has authored four books, has cooked professionally and is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy. She is a two-time James Beard finalist and in 2017 was a Pulitzer finalist.