by Marion Nestle
Mar 7 2022

Industry-funded study of the week: animal-source foods in health and sustainability

I was sent an email with this message:

Calling your attention to this newly released review article, Animal source foods in healthy, sustainable, and ethical diets – An argument against drastic limitation of livestock in the food system. It was published in the March 2022 edition of Animal and is well worth a read, as it makes a strong case for the role of animal source foods in healthy, environmentally sustainable and ethical diets. See below for “highlights” taken directly from the paper, with the full review attached.

–Animal source foods are seen by some as unhealthy, unsustainable, and unethical.

–Outcomes depend on practical specificities, not on the fact that animals are involved.

–As for any food, the challenge is to promote best practices and limit harm.

     –Well-managed animals contribute to food security, ecological function and livelihoods.

     –Heavy reduction of livestock may lead to a fragile food system and societal damage.

I happen to agree that food animals are essential components of regenerative agriculture systems but there was something about this that triggered my “who paid for this?” question.  Bingo!

Here is the paper’s financial support statement:

FL acknowledges financial support of the Research Council of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, including the SRP7 and IOF342 projects, and in particular, the Interdisciplinary Research Program “Tradition and naturalness of animal products within a societal context of change” (IRP11). PM acknowledges financial support of the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability (HELSUS) through the project “Understanding pastoralism sustainability through an interdisciplinary lens”. PG and FL acknowledge financial support of the project “Grazing for environmental and human health” funded by the New Zealand Royal Society’s Catalyst Seeding Fund. SvV acknowledges grant support from the North Dakota Beef Association to study the health effects of red meat in relation to diet quality. SvV reports additional grant support from USDA-NIFA-SARE (2020-38640-31521; 2021-67034-35118), the Turner Institute of Ecoagriculture, the DixonFoundation, and the Greenacres Foundation for projects that link agricultural production systems (including livestock and crops) to the nutritional/metabolite composition of foods and human health.

Here are the authors’ conflict of interest declarations:

All authors follow omnivorous diets. FL is a non-remunerated board member of various academic non-profit organisations including the Belgian Association for Meat Science and Technology (president), the Belgian Society for Food Microbiology (secretary), and the Belgian Nutrition Society. On a non-remunerated basis, he also has a seat in the scientific committee of the Institute Danone Belgium, the World’s Farmers Organization, and the Advisory Commission for the “Protection of Geographical Denominations and Guaranteed Traditional Specialties for Agricultural Products and Foods” of the Ministry of the Brussels Capital Region. PM is a non-remunerated member of the Spanish Platform for Extensive Livestock and Pastoralism. SvV reports financial renumeration for academic talks, but does not accept honoraria, consulting fees, or other personal income from food industry groups/companies.

Comment: The authors say much more than is usual about their potential conflicts of interest, either via their personal diets or their professional financial links to the meat industry.  Still, those links exist, as I could predict from the paper’s title.  The role of food animals in health and sustainability is heavily disputed.  Because of its funding and the ties of some of the authors to the meat industry, this study appears less convincing than it might if funded independently and carried out by independed researchers.

Reference: For research on why and how industry sponsorship can influence study outcome, see Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat.