by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Meat

Nov 19 2021

Weekend reading: in defense of eating beef

Nicolette Hahn Niman.  Defending Beef: The Ecological and Nutritional Case for Meat (revized and expanded second edition). Chelsea Green, 2021. 

The Defending Beef cover

This is an updated edition of Hahn Niman’s 2014 book, which I wrote about in October that year.  Then, it was titled Defending Beef: The Case for Sustainable Meat Production.

I did a blurb for the book when it first came out and it still holds for this new edition:

Issues related to the long-term health effects of red meat, saturated fat, sugar, and grains are complex and I see the jury as still out on many of them.  While waiting for the science to be resolved, Hahn Niman’s book is well worth reading for its forceful defense of the role of ruminant animals in sustainable food systems.

In my 2014 post, I said:

The subtitle says it all: “The Manifesto of an Environmental Lawyer and Vegetarian Turned Cattle Rancher.”

Really?

Really.  She’s not kidding.

As [my blurb] might suggest, I have a more cautious interpretation of the science she summarizes, but there are plenty of reasons why eating meat can help improve human nutrition, especially when the animals are raised as humanely and sustainably as possible, which the Nimans most definitely do on their beautiful Bolinas ranch. [Photos are here]

Vegetarians: does she convince you?

Let the debates begin.

Well, 7 years later the new edition focuses much more on arguments about the effects of beef production on climate change and whether plant-based meat alternatives are worth the trouble.

The big news:  Hahn Niman is no longer a vegetarian.

I may once have believed that if I followed a vegetarian diet, nothing would have to die for my meals.  I now see how wrong I was…My primary mission these past two decades has been helping, in whatever ways I can, build a more environmentally sound, nourishing and humane food system.  We have a long way to go.  I don’t urge people to eat meat.  But I certainly don’t urge refraining from it, either.  I encourage omnivorous eaters to seek well-raised meat.  Abandoning meat will not positively affect the food system and may diminish one’s health.  The greatest consumer impact will come from people who eat meat actually buying it from good sources. (p.244)

I am with her on all of that.

That meat has nutritional and ecological benefits is beyond dispute.  This books lays out her point of view about the reasons for these benefits in an especially thoughtful way that carefully considers the counter-arguments.

Whether you agree with her views or not, this is the book to read about these issues.

Nov 2 2021

Congressional staff report: Covid 3X harder on meatpacking workers

The majority staff of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis has issued a scathing report: “Coronavirus Infections and Deaths Among Meatpacking Workers Were Nearly Three Times Higher than Previous Estimates.”

Newly obtained documents from five of the largest meatpacking conglomerates, which represent over 80 percent of the market for beef and over 60 percent of the market for pork in the United States—JBS USA Food Company (JBS), Tyson Foods, Inc. (Tyson), Smithfield Foods (Smithfield), Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation (Cargill), and National Beef Packing Company, LLC (National Beef)—reveal that coronavirus infections and deaths among their meatpacking workers were substantially higher than previously estimated.

The report’s main findings:

  • Certain meatpacking plants saw particularly high rates of coronavirus infections during the first year of the pandemic. For example, 54.1 percent of the workforce at JBS’ Hyrum, Utah plant contracted the coronavirus between March 2020 and February 2021.
  • Across companies, Tyson saw 29,462 employee infections and 151 employee deaths, and JBS saw 12,859 employee infections and 62 employee deaths.
  • Coronavirus Outbreaks in Meatpacking Plants Disproportionately Impacted Minority Workers
  • The full extent of coronavirus infections and deaths at these meatpacking companies was likely much worse than these figures suggest.
  • OSHA made a political decision not to issue regulatory standards that might require meatpacking companies to take actions to protect workers.

Recall that meatpacking workers were among the first to get sick from Covid-19, causing

The report confirms that Covid-19 in meatpacking workers was and is a national tragedy and scandal, a direct result of corporate consolidation and capture of government.

The report’s recommendations to meatpacking plants, government agencies, and Congress can’t come soon enough.

Sep 16 2021

The Biden Administration’s challenge to meat industry consolidation

I posted last week on meat-industry consolidation, an issue that has become so prominent that the White House is even talking about it.

The President understands that families have been facing higher prices at the grocery store recently. Half of those recent increases are from meat prices—specifically, beef, pork, and poultry. While factors like increased consumer demand have played a role, the price increases are also driven by a lack of competition at a key bottleneck point in the meat supply chain: meat-processing. Just four large conglomerates control the majority of the market for each of these three products, and the data show that these companies have been raising prices while generating record profits during the pandemic.

That’s why the Biden-Harris Administration is taking bold action to enforce the antitrust laws, boost competition in meat-processing, and push back on pandemic profiteering that is hurting consumers, farmers, and ranchers across the country.

Speaking for the White House, the director of the National Economic Council said:

When you see that level of consolidation and the increase in prices, it raises a concern about pandemic profiteering — about companies that are driving price increases in a way that hurts consumers who are going to the grocery store, and also isn’t benefiting the actual producers, the farmers and the ranchers that are growing the product.

The reactions

In a statement, Tyson’s Foods said “Tyson Foods categorically rejects the conclusions drawn earlier today by the Secretary of Agriculture and the Director of the National Economic Council in a White House press briefing.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently published a report detailing the drivers of consumer inflation in the food sector, none of which are related to industry consolidation or scale.”

Smithfield pointed to a statement from the North American Meat Institute.

And then there’s this @FarmPolicy tweet,

Interesting times, these.

Sep 15 2021

Midweek reading: The Meat Atlas

Take a look at this.

The authors write:

It is clear that many (especially young) people no longer want to accept the profit-driven damage caused by the meat industry and are increasingly interested in and committed to climate, sustainability, animal welfare and food sovereignty causes. We consider this an encouraging step for our future and want to use this Atlas to strengthen their commitment with information.

This Atlas is intended to support all those who seek climate justice and food sovereignty, and who want to protect nature. Revealing new data and facts, and providing links between various key issues, it is a crucial contribution to the work done by many to shed light on the problems arising from industrial meat production.

They aren’t kidding about data, facts, and issues.  The graphics alone are worth viewing.  Three examples.

Pesticide applications, global:

Diseases transmitted by animals to humans: A chronological list

Trends and investment in plant-based meat alternatives

And here’s what The Guardian highlights: meat and dairy firms emit more greenhouse gases than Germany, Britain, or France.

 

Aug 24 2021

How much do cattle contribute to greenhouse gases?  It depends on who’s counting, and what.

A couple of weeks ago I did a post about a beef industry ad promoting the idea that eating beef promotes sustainability.  The ad claimed that beef contribute only 2% of greenhouse gases.  In rebuttal, I cited the widely quoted figure of 14.5%.

Two readers argued for a correction.

The first, Stephen Zwick, describes himself as a “regenetarianist,” a “huge soil nerd,” and independent of industry interests.  He sent lengthy and highly technical notes.  These, in my interpretation, boil down to:

He says:

Enteric methane is a distraction. Poor land management destroying soil sinks and reducing photosynthesis via desertification, deforestation and ocean acidification are also a huge problem. And yes, cattle and palm oil are part of the problem in tropical regions (see The Deforestation Process... )…Cattle is a very conspicuous driver, though it’s not really the primary driver. Human greed is…So, in other words, we need better regional and system data, and we can’t really make universal claims.

The second set of comments comes from Greg Miller, the chief science officer of the National Dairy Council.

While FAO estimates livestock emissions at 14.5% based on LCA [life cycle assessment], the emissions from transportation are only from the tailpipes (not LCA), so comparing apples and bananas – FAO did this, but later retracted because it is an inappropriate comparison, that now keeps getting repeated, thought you should know.

He cites this source on greenhouse gas emissions from the dairy sector:

And he cites this reference:  Recht, L. 2021 An Inclusive Transition to a Sustainable and Resilient Meat Sector, which talks about how to raise cattle sustainably.

How to make sense of this?

The percentage of greenhouse gases due to animal agriculture depends on who is doing the counting, and what factors and assumptions go into the estimations.  Low estimates predictably come from the beef and dairy industries (Stephen Zwick does not, which is why I am quoting him).  The Environmental Protection Agency also produces low estimates: 1.3% of total emissions for dairies.

In contrast, the Humane Society uses 18% (referring to carbon dioxide equivalents), as does Cowspiracy.

A new paper in Sustainability argues that the correct estimate is 16.5%.

It matters whether we are talking about carbon dioxide or methane.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommends “strong, rapid and sustained reductions in CH4 [methane] emissions” and notes that the growth in atmospheric methane is “largely driven by emissions from the fossil fuels and agriculture (dominated by livestock) sectors.”

I was interested to see yesterday’s Politico, which had a report about the current politics of methane emissions. (behind a paywall).  It notes:

While oil and gas production is the main reason methane emissions have boomed since 2007, agriculture (namely livestock operations) remains a massive source of the potent greenhouse gas, accounting for 40 percent of methane emissions worldwide. ..Senate Democrats plan to include a “methane polluter fee” in their $3.5 trillion budget resolution that would hit energy producers that vent or burn off excess methane and compressors used to pressurize and transport natural gas.

The precise percentage contributed by animal agriculture?  I’m not sure it matters.  Everyone agrees that cattle produce more greenhouse gases than produced by any other food (as a result of burps, deforestation, feed production, manure, etc).

Raising cattle more sustainably and regeneratively is a really good idea.

That’s where policy needs to be directed.

Aug 5 2021

Response to my conflicts-of-interest post on July 19

On July 19, I did a post on a recent study comparing the nutrient composition of plant-based meat alternatives to that of grass-fed beef.  I was not surprised that the study found nutritional differences; they are to be expected.

I was surprised that “From the abstract and conclusion, the study appears to suggest that meat is nutritionally better,” but the authors said the two types “could be viewed as complementary in terms of provided nutrients. It cannot be determined from our data if either source is healthier to consume.”   That confused me.  I also was confused by the authors’ reported conflicts of interest and said so.

One reader wrote to say that I was being unfair to the authors, who are excellent scientists.

Indeed, the authors followed up with an explanation, which I offered to post here without further comment.  They agreed to that.

Dear Dr. Nestle,

Many thanks for posting about our work. We have the utmost respect for your work and we have cited your work in our papers and books (e.g., Provenza’s Nourishment). You are an influential and well-respected person, and as you noted, your followers wanted you to inform them about this paper. When reading the post about our work, we were particularly surprised that you didn’t send us an email to fact-check your points, especially since we were introduced by email on 7/7 that noted: “I’ve copied two of the researchers involved Stephan van Vliet and Fred Provenza. That way if you have any further questions, you can pose those to the researchers directly.” If you disagree, c’est la vie, but at least that would have enabled you to write an informed critique, rather than one that is speculative and, at times, incorrect.

An off-hand and speculative statement such as this one: “maybe the vegetarian was responsible for the hedging comments?” would easily have been addressed by simply sending us an email inquiring about this. We would have gladly told you that it was three of the omnivores (SVV, FDP, SK) who were particularly concerned that people would over extrapolate the data. We were especially concerned that people would interpret our data as beef being “better”. That is not what the data indicate (more on what the data does indicate below). Hence our clear and repeated statement: “It cannot be determined from our data if either source is healthier to consume.”

We are writing you this friendly note to put some context to the points that you made. We hope that you will take them as our attempt to reinforce points that we were careful to develop so our paper was not one-sided.

“So, they’re framing everything with the baseline that animal meat is “proper nutrition” which seems like a pretty obvious bias right out of the gate…”

The two words you quoted are from a much more nuanced sentence, which reads: “This has raised questions of whether plant-based meat alternatives represent proper nutritional replacements to animal meat”. This statement refers to a number of papers by different research groups (see our paper for citations) who pose that very question, which we were interested in exploring. This is much more nuanced statement than what you suggest in the blogpost, which simply states animal meat is “proper nutrition”, which, to us, feels like a twisting of our carefully chosen words.

That we are not framing meat as “proper nutrition” is further illustrated by the stated goal of this work at the end of the introduction: “Given the scientific and commercial interest in plant-based meat alternatives, the goal of our study was to use untargeted metabolomics to provide an in-depth comparison of the metabolite profiles of grass-fed ground beef and a popular plant-based meat alternative, both of which are sometimes considered as healthier and more environmentally friendly sources of “beef”.

Furthermore, we also have to be realistic here and not dance around the obvious; the goal of plant-based meat alternatives is to provide a sensory and nutritional replacement for meat, as illustrated in press releases such as Impossible’s “We are Meat”. If one were to add carotenoids and fiber to a meat sausage (see Arby’s Marrot https://www.foodandwine.com/news/arbys-meat-carrots) and consider this a replacement to a carrot…. We would ask the same question: to what extent do a carrot and a meat-based carrot alternative differ nutritionally? It would be reasonable to take the carrot as the benchmark. All in all, we argue that our framing of the research question is much more nuanced than you suggested in your blogpost. “

To the question of nutritional differences, duh, indeed. Why would anyone not expect nutritional differences? From the abstract and conclusion, the study appears to suggest that meat is nutritionally better.”

As we acknowledge in the abstract “Important nutritional differences may exist between beef and novel plant-based alternatives; however, this has not been thoroughly assessed.” Please give us some credit. One of us (Fred Provenza) has studied plants and animals for over 50 years. Of course, we expected meat from a cow to differ from meat from soybeans, but the extent to which this may be the case had not been studied. Nor is this clear to the consumer who is simply looking at Nutrition Facts panels, another very important reason why we did the research. Another issue is that foods are often considered equivalent simply based on their protein content (even in dietary guidelines), but “protein foods” can be vastly different in terms of the non-protein nutrients they provide. We recommend Dr. Courtney-Martin’s editorial in AJCN titled “Is a peanut really an egg”. (https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/151/5/1055/6217441). She discusses these issues in such an elegant way.

We do not suggest that meat is nutritionally better, we clearly state the following in the abstract (something you cite in your blogpost): “Amongst identified metabolites were various nutrients (amino acids, phenols, vitamins, unsaturated fatty acids, and dipeptides) with potentially important physiological, anti-inflammatory, and/or immunomodulatory roles—many of which remained absent in the plant-based meat alternative when compared to beef and vice versa. Our data indicates that these products should not be viewed as nutritionally interchangeable, but could be viewed as complementary in terms of provided nutrients. It cannot be determined from our data if either source is healthier to consume.

The italicized portions are key: we state that some nutrients are not found in the plant-based meat alternative and some nutrients are not found in the meat. Nothing more and nothing less. We also clearly state that we cannot determine from this metabolomics analysis if one is healthier than the other. We intend to pursue that question in research with people, but based on current research we also have to be realistic and we, therefore, highlight the following: “Further work is needed to inform these discussions; however, we consider it important to not lose sight of the “bigger picture” in these discussions, which is the overall dietary pattern in which individual foods are consumed. That is arguably the predominant factor dictating health outcomes to individual foods. Of note is a recent 8-week randomized controlled trial that found that a “flexitarian approach” (swapping moderate amounts of meat with novel plant-based alternatives as part of an omnivorous diet) may have positive benefits in terms of weight control and lipoprotein profiles (e.g., LDL-cholesterol).” (https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqaa203).

We are not particularly touting the superiority of meat in the discussion. We mention many of the potential health benefits of the compounds found in plant-based meat alternatives such as phytosterols, tocopherols, and other phenolic anti-oxidants, which were more abundant or exclusively found in the plant-based meat alternative.

“Really? If they can’t figure out which is better, why do this study?”

It is not a question of which one is better. It is about understanding potential similarities and differences. Is an almond better than an orange? That depends on the types of nutrients you are looking to get. If you want Vitamin C, an orange is preferred over an almond. If you want Vitamin E, consume the almonds. But there is also nutritional overlap, because both provide fiber and they have complementary phytonutrient profiles. A silly example perhaps when you put it like that, but that’s analogues to what we are stating in the paper.

“As for the conflicted interests: My first reaction to seeing this study was to ask: “Who paid for this?”

No funding was received for this work. The cost of the meat and plant-based meat alternatives (~$600) was paid with my [Dr. Stephan van Vliet] personal credit card (I am a post-doc and had no grant or start-up funds when I first arrived at Duke). The cost of metabolomics (~$200 per sample) was waived by Duke Molecular Physiology Institute’s Metabolomics Core. This was generously done to provide an early career investigator like myself to generate pilot data for a publication and grants.

The North Dakota Beef Association grant that I am the PI on [Dr. Stephan van Vliet] is $135k (not a very big grant) and supports a 4-week RCT that studies cardiovascular risk biomarkers and metabolome profiles in response to eating beef as part of a traditional (whole food) vs standard American diet. Various epidemiological studies suggest that when red meat is consumed as part of a whole foods diet, the associated risk with CVD becomes neutral, whereas eating red meat as part of a standard American diet is associated with increased disease risk. We are testing/falsifying this hypothesis prospectively in a short-term RCT and are exploring potential mechanisms by which this may or may not be the case. This work has nothing to do with plant-based meat alternatives.

The Turner Institute of Ecoagriculture ($27.5k) and the Dixon Foundation ($12.5k) are pilot grants to run metabolomics on grass-fed vs grain-fed bison and beef, respectively. The USDA-NIFA-SARE grant is collecting both plant (crops + fruit) and animal (eggs + beef) food samples from farms that use agroecological principles such as integrated crop-livestock systems. Here we are asking the question: How do practices that potentially stimulate soil health and plant diversity impact the healthfulness of animal and plant foods for human consumption? To be clear, we are also studying crop samples (soy, corn, and peas) some of which may go into alternative protein production.

My [Stephan van Vliet] conflict-of-interest policy is also essentially similar to yours: I accept funding for travel, hotels, meals, and meeting registrations, but I do not accept personal honoraria, consulting fees, or any other financial payments from such groups. A simple email could have cleared that up, but I will make sure that I state this more clearly in future papers.

Of course, we understand the public suspicion about research funding and undue influence. If a certain funding agency doesn’t like the data or the proposal and they don’t want to fund any of our projects then that is what it is, but we would not risk our reputation and career for a few research dollars or to please the funding agency. That’s why we are pushing back on this. Fred Provenza, especially, has been critical of the way beef is produced in confinement feeding operations (e.g., see recent paper https://doi.org/10.3389/fsufs.2021.547822), so the suggestion that we are beef industry defendants rather than independent scientists does sting a bit.

At the same time, we would also be lying if we didn’t think about where funding comes from. However, the harsh reality is that without foundation/commodity funds for scientific research, there would be much less research, much of which has also proven valuable over time. Even with our USDA grant, one could argue that the reason we are funded is because we wrote a good proposal, but also because our proposed work can presumably benefit the US Farm Bill. Is that true independence? All we know is that we should be transparent (hence our detailed competing interest statement) and let the data speak for itself (hence we attached our full data set as supplementary materials and deposited raw data files on metabolomics workbench), which is what we aimed to do in our Sci Rep paper.

We appreciate your concerns. We will certainly take these into account as we move forward and continue to be critical of our work. We hope you also consider our concerns and are willing to keep an open and friendly dialogue.

Sincerely,

Stephan van Vliet

Fred Provenza

Scott Kronberg

Aug 3 2021

GAO tells USDA to get busy on worker safety at meat-packing plants

The summer is a good time to catch up on reports.  Early in July, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO)—a government watchdog agency—sent a firm letter to USDA chiding that agency for not implementing GAO’s recommendations in a timely manner.

In November 2020, we reported that on a government-wide basis, 77 percent of our recommendations made 4 years ago were implemented…[but] USDA’s recommendation implementation rate was 46 percent. As of May 2021, USDA had 171 open recommendations. Fully implementing all open recommendations could significantly improve USDA’s operations.

Among the GAO’s recommendations were two of particular interest:

I.  Strengthen Protections for Wage Earners. See: Workplace Safety and Health: Better Outreach, Collaboration and Information Needed to Help Protect Workers at Meat and Poultry Plants. GAO-18-12. Washington, D.C.: November 9, 2017.

Recommendation: The FSIS Administrator should work with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to assess the implementation of their agencies’ joint memorandum of understanding (MOU) regarding worker safety at meat and poultry plants and make any needed changes to ensure improved collaboration, and also set specific time frames for periodic evaluations of the MOU.

Comment: This is about the failure of OSHA and USDA to protect meat-processing and -packing workers from Covid-19 (for data on the effects of Covid-19 on these workers, see Leah Douglas’s regular reports on the Food and Environment Reporting Network.  GAO is essentially calling on the two agencies to get busy on protecting workers at those plants.

II.  Improve Cybersecurity.  See Cybersecurity: Agencies Need to Fully Establish Risk Management Programs and Address Challenges. GAO-19-384. Washington, D.C.: July 25, 2019.

Recommendations:  The USDA should (1) develop a cybersecurity risk management strategy that includes the key elements identified in this report; and (2) establish and document a process for coordination between cybersecurity risk management and enterprise risk management functions.

Comment:  The GAO is asking USDA to work with other agencies to improve cybersecurity at meat-processing plants.  Why?  Because the meat industry’s weak cybersecurity—a long-standing problem—was recently exposed when hackers did a ransomware attack on JBS meat plants that cost the company $11 million to resolve.

Jul 19 2021

Plant-based meat vs real meat: a nutritional toss-up—or not?

So many readers have asked me to comment on the recent study comparing the nutrient content of meat versus plant-based alternatives that I thought I better get to it.

For example, Andrew Wilder of eatingrules.com writes:

They conclude that there are nutritional differences…My first thought was “Duh!”… so I started wondering why they would even do this study…Surprise surprise, two of the authors have connections to the beef industry.  I also thought it was interesting that in the Abstract, they say “This has raised questions of whether plant‑based meat alternatives represent proper nutritional replacements to animal meat.” So they’re framing everything with the baseline that animal meat is “proper nutrition” which seems like a pretty obvious bias right out of the gate…

Indeed it does.  But the study is a bit more complicated than that, and definitely worth a look.

The study: A metabolomics comparison of plant‑based meat and grass‑fed meat indicates large nutritional differences despite comparable Nutrition Facts panels. Stephan van Vliet, James R. Bain Michael J. Muehlbauer, Frederick D. Provenza, Scott L. Kronberg, Carl F. Pieper & Kim M. Huffman. Nature Scientific Reports (2021) 11:13828.

The research question: Do plant‑based meat alternatives represent proper nutritional replacements to animal meat?

The method: The study compared 190 metabolites (chemical compounds capable of being used by the body) in meat and plant-based alternatives.

Result: Big differences.

Conclusion:  “In conclusion, metabolomics revealed that abundance of 171 out of 190 profiled metabolites differed between beef and a commercially-available plant-based meat alternative, despite comparable Nutrition Facts panels. Amongst identified metabolites were various nutrients (amino acids, phenols, vitamins, unsaturated fatty acids, and dipeptides) with potentially important physiological, anti-inflammatory, and/or immunomodulatory roles—many of which remained absent in the plant-based meat alternative when compared to beef and vice versa. Our data indicates that these products should not be viewed as nutritionally interchangeable, but could be viewed as complementary in terms of provided nutrients. It cannot be determined from our data if either source is healthier to consume [my emphasis].”

Competing interests: “S.V.V. reports a grant from the North Dakota Beef Association to study the impact of diet quality on the relationship between red meat and human health. S.V.V reports additional grant support from USDA-NIFA-SARE (LS21-357), the Turner Institute of Ecoagriculture, and the Dixon Foundation for projects that link agricultural production systems to the nutritional/metabolite composition of foods and human health. S.V.V also reports having received honoria [sic] for talks linking food production systems to human health, which was used to support scientific research. F.D.P. reports receiving honoraria for his talks about behavior-based management of livestock. J.R.B., M.J.M., S.L.K., C.F.P., and K.M.H report no conflicts. S.V.V., J.R.B., M.J.M., F.D.P., S.L.K., and C.F.P. consume omnivorous diets; K.M.H. consumes a vegetarian diet.”

Comment: To the question of nutritional differences, duh, indeed.  Why would anyone not expect nutritional differences?  From the abstract and conclusion, the study appears to suggest that meat is nutritionally better.

But then, the authors throw in those hedge-betting comments.

Really?   If they can’t figure out which is better, why do this study?

Andrew Wilder’s analysis and mine too: the underlying purpose of this study is to demonstrate the nutritional superiority of meat and the lack of equivalence of plant-based substitutes.

As for the conflicted interests: My first reaction to seeing this study was to ask: “Who paid for this?”

But the reported conflicts are somewhat confusing.  The lead author has meat-industry funding to do studies of this type.  But most of the other authors report no conflicts, and one is a vegetarian.

Maybe the vegetarian was responsible for the hedging comments?