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Intolerance, naming & shaming, allegations — the red meat debate is getting nasty

The dispute can be traced to a series of studies from October that seeks to discredit popular wisdom about the ill-effects of red meat.

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Bengaluru: Is it good for you, or it is not? The meat debate seems to be getting nasty.

A Harvard professor recently accused a renowned New York Times journalist and others of “disinformation” for reporting on a series of controversial studies that discredit the known ill-effects of red meat, eliciting tremendous backlash on social media.

It didn’t help that the professor, Walter Willett, reportedly did this during a presentation at a cardiology conference, with a slide show naming the “offenders”.

Willett is a prominent proponent of existing nutrition and dietary guidelines in the US, which ask citizens to reduce the consumption of red meat for health reasons.

The remarks came to light with a tweet posted by noted Washington Post columnist Tamar Haspel, who said the slide was sent to her by a friend.

The image accompanying the tweet, purportedly depicting the slide, showed a triangle labelled ‘The Disinformation Triangle’.

The top point of the triangle named ‘sensationalist media’ like the Annals journal, which published the controversial research, and NYT reporter Gina Kolata, 71, a popular science journalist.

The left point of the triangle named ‘big beef’, naming Texas A&M University and Patrick Stover, one of the researchers behind the beef studies.

The right point named “evidence-based” academics like McMaster University professor Gordon Guyatt, another researcher involved with the study, and the Nutritional Recommendations Consortium (NutriRECS), which includes the international group of researchers behind the beef findings. 

Also Read: Modi govt plans to push buffalo meat exports as China is set to lift curbs on Indian beef

Ties to meat industry

The presentation came just over a month after a series of studies controversially claimed that the risks associated with red meat consumption have been exaggerated.

However, soon after they were released, the authors came under fire for not having disclosed their ties to the meat industry.

Many journalists, including Kolata for NYT, covered the studies, which advise adults to continue consumption of red meat — both processed and unprocessed. The current dietary guidelines recommend limiting red meat to one serving a week for health reasons, since it is believed to be associated with heart disease, cholesterol risks, diabetes and cancer,

Willett seemed to indicate that Kolata’s coverage is unbalanced, even though her report quoted several researchers to offer balanced views. The New York Times subsequently also published a piece on the authors’ failure to disclose their conflict of interest — they received funding from a  Texas A&M University programme partially funded by the beef industry.

According to the NYT report, Bradley C. Johnston, the scientist who led the studies, claimed no conflict of interest, but published a study three years ago that encouraged consumption of sugar. 

This study also appeared in the Annals journal and was funded by the International Life Sciences Institute, an industry trade group that has among its members McDonald’s, Pepsi Co, Coca Cola, and Cargill, the largest beef processors in North America.

The study was published by NutriRECS, which had formed a partnership with an arm of Texas A&M University, of which Stover is a part, and which gets money from the beef industry. Stover, however, claimed work on the study was completed before the funding kicked in.

Another author of the study reportedly received funding from the Brazilian government’s National Council for Scientific Technological Development, Washington Post reported.

Brazil is the largest exporter of beef in the world.

David Katz, the founding director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale, told the Washington Post that the study seemed designed to influence the 2020 US dietary guidelines. He also said it was trying to cast doubt on a growing body of negative research on red and processed meat, which are considered harmful both for the human body and the environment.

‘Intolerance’ called out

The red meat debate has been raging among scientists for a while now, especially in the US, which issues dietary guidelines every five years.

But Willett’s decision to name and publicly seek to shame researchers with a different opinion, as well as a renowned journalist, elicited heavy backlash on social media. Several people replying to Haspel’s post said it was wrong to accuse those with divergent opinions of being ill-intentioned. 

Dietary constraints are a subject that require a lot of nuance to understand, as there are many challenges accompanying actual research on dietary habits and impact. 

There are many ways to gather data, and most of them are generally considered error-prone as it is extremely difficult to hold people to a diet or have them accurately report their food habits over a period of time.

Similarly, conflicts of interest are also a large grey area where industry funding can remove objectivity. 

Also Read: Red meat not all that bad for you, say new studies


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