There was a collective sigh of relief from the bulk of the population when a re-examination of scientific studies recently concluded people could continue to eat red and processed meat.
The fact that the review did not find eating red or processed meat was safe did not seem to matter. The widely-reported message was that, although the science showed eating meat was harmful, it was only a little bit harmful, and not enough for people to worry about.
The article which captured the world’s attention contradicts well-established advice to cut down on red and processed meat, which for a long time has been associated with cardiovascular disease, several cancers, and other chronic lifestyle diseases such as type 2 diabetes.
A 14-member team from the Annals of Internal Science – a journal run by the American College of Physicians – reviewed past studies that fit their criteria. One of the reviews looked at people’s attitudes about eating meat. Predictably, it found that omnivores are reluctant to give it up, even if they know their health is at risk. These results were factored into the guidelines, essentially saying that since people don’t want to give up meat, they don’t need to.
Interestingly, three of the panel members dissented from the conclusions and advice from this latest review.
Everyone involved with the research signed a disclosure form that they did not have any conflicts of interest to report during the past three years, a standard set by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors.
The New York Times has since reported that Bradley Johnston, an epidemiologist at Dalhousie University in Canada, who co-led the endeavour behind the new recommendations, has previously received funding from the International Life Sciences Institute (ISLI) in 2016 for a study which argued that warnings to cut sugar were based on weak evidence. As the ILSI study fell just outside the 3 year timeline, Johnston did not make this disclosure.
ISLI is a corporate-funded nonprofit organisation claiming to conduct “science for the public good.” However, investigations by academics, journalists and public interest researchers show that it is a lobby group that protects the interests of the food industry, not public health.
A report from the World Health Organisation in 2000 found that ILSI was used by certain tobacco companies to thwart tobacco control policies.
Getting clear on the facts
Many organisations have been critical of the latest recommendations from the Annals of Internal Medicine and have expressed grave concerns about the potential for damage to public understanding, and public health.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine called the results misrepresentations and said that there's abundant evidence linking red and processed meat to heart disease and increased risk of premature death. It found the findings a major disservice to public health, and called on the journal to issue a public retraction.
The American Heart Association called the conclusions of the study questionable.
Dr. Frank Hu, the chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said he was stunned when he realised that Dr Johnston was both the leader of the meat study and the same researcher who led the industry-funded review that attacked guidelines advising people to eat less sugar. He notes that the tool he employed in his meat and sugar studies could be misused to discredit all sorts of well-established public health warnings, like the link between secondhand smoke and heart disease, air pollution and health problems, physical inactivity and chronic disease, and trans fats and heart disease.
Excellent rebuttals have been provided by several members of our Advisory Council:
We also commend the commentary from the following other experts and organisations:
There is understandable confusion among the public and healthcare professionals alike, given the daily deluge of confusing and contradictory reports about diet. To help address this, DFN is preparing web-based guidance on how to decipher fact from fiction. Stay tuned.