by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Meat

Jan 20 2020

Conflicted research argument of the week: meat versus plants

I could not keep up with the number of e-mails I got last week with the subject line “Have you seen this?”

“This” referred to an opinion piece in JAMA entitled Backlash Over Meat Dietary Recommendations Raises Questions About Corporate Ties to Nutrition Scientists.

Definitely up my alley.

The article describes the outraged reaction to a series of papers in the Annals of Internal Medicine last year arguing that recommendations to eat less meat are unfounded (I posted about this at the time).  Some of the investigators involved in the meat papers turned out to have undisclosed ties to meat industry interests.

The JAMA article points out that the most outraged objections to the Annals papers came from investigators who have plenty of industry ties (plant-based) of their own.

My book, Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat, provides loads of evidence for a basic observation: research funded by food companies, regardless of the particular food studied, tends to produce results favorable to the sponsor’s interests.

It also describes how industry influence occurs at an unconscious level; recipients are unaware that they are being influenced.

How the influence gets expressed is also the subject of research.  Bias most frequently turns up in the framing of the research question.  It also turns up frequently in the interpretation of results.

Here is an example from a study of a healthy plant food—walnuts.

The study: Effect of a 2-year diet intervention with walnuts on cognitive decline. The Walnuts And Healthy Aging (WAHA) study: a randomized controlled trial.  Aleix Sala-Vila, Cinta Valls-Pedret, Sujatha Rajaram, Nina Coll-Padrós, Montserrat Cofán, Mercè Serra-Mir,  Ana M Pérez-Heras, Irene Roth, Tania M Freitas-Simoes, Mónica Doménech, Carlos Calvo, Anna López-Illamola, Edward Bitok, Natalie K Buxton, Lynnley Huey, Adam Arechiga, Keiji Oda, Grace J Lee, Dolores Corella, Lídia Vaqué-Alcázar, Roser Sala-Llonch, David Bartrés-Faz, Joan Sabaté, and Emilio Ros1.  Am J Clin Nutr 2020;00:1–11.

Conclusions: Walnut supplementation for 2 y had no effect on cognition in healthy elders. However, brain fMRI and post hoc analyses by site suggest that walnuts might delay cognitive decline in subgroups at higher risk. These encouraging but inconclusive results warrant further investigation.

Conflicts of Interest: AS-V, SR, JS, and ER have received research funding through their institutions from the California Walnut Commission, Folsom, CA, USA. JS and ER were nonpaid members of the California Walnut Commission Scientific Advisory Council. ER was a paid member of the California Walnut Commission Health Research Advisory Group. JS has received honoraria from the California Walnut Commission for presentations.  AS-V has received support from the CaliforniaWalnut Commission to attend professional meetings. All other authors report no conflicts of interest.

Comment: This looks to me like a classic example of interpretation bias.  Although the study showed no effect of walnut supplementation, the authors interpret its overall results as encouraging.  This is putting a positive spin on null results.

Walnuts—and other kinds of nuts—are plant foods with healthy fats.  Why does the California Walnut Commission need to do this?  So you will buy walnuts rather than hazelnuts, pecans, or macadamia nuts (all of which are sponsoring their own positive-result studies).  Studies like these are mostly about marketing.

Questions of whether meat is healthy or unhealthy—and, if unhealthy, at what level of intake—are about much more than marketing.   They need to be studied as objectively as possible.  It’s best to keep industry influence far away from such studies.

Even if the science is done well from start to finish, researchers’ ties to food company sponsors give the appearance of conflicted interests.  Such ties are best avoided from the get-go.

Nov 15 2019

Weekend reading: Meat, Cultured and Not

I’ve been seeing lots of books about meat lately.  Here are two recent ones.

Josh Berson.  The Meat Question: Animals, Humans, and the Deep History of Food.  MIT Press, 2019.

The author is an Australian social scientist, a vegan, who has produced a deep dive into the history of the use of meat as food and as cultural symbol.  As he puts it,

The aim of this book is to unpack what I’ve come to call the Meat Question–Should humans be eating meat, and if so who, and what kinds, and how much?–in the most comprehensive way possible.  The perspective…is deep deep in that it encompasses the history of human meat eating and human relationships with other gregarious vertebrates over a span of more than 2 million years.  (p. 2)

This [book’s] perspective is centered on my conviction that the economic violence of meat has less to do with who can and cannot afford it than with how meat serves to prop up a system of asymmetric benefits from all forms of human activity, not just that related to food.  Growing demand for meat is not simply an outcome of growing affluence.  It is a symptom of the inequality and oppression that have accompanied that affluence. (p. 294)

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft.  Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food.  University of California Press, 2019.

This book examines the brand-new industry creating lab-based meat.  These products are not yet on the market but are of such enormous public and economic interest that they are well worth book-length treatment.

This book tells the story of what I found, and what I did not find, in the course of my time in the small, strange world of cultured meat, during what seemed to be the early years of an emerging technology.  I expected to spend time in laboratories…This did happen in some measure, but for the most part I found myself with very little laboratory science to observe and a great many public conversations about cultured meat to participate in and sort through.  (p. 15)

But cultured meat, too, raises moral questions.  Not questions about our moral regard for harvested cells, but questions about the implications cultured meat may hold for our moral regard for animals….It is relatively easy to see how cultured meat would or would not suit different philosophical arguments for animal protection….But assuming that cultured meat leads to abolition of animal agriculture, it will change our sense of what these creatures, these nonhuman animals, are doing in the world. (p. 133)

Both of these books deal with the moral, philosophical, cultural, historical, and socioeconomic implications of meat-eating, although from quite different perspectives.

Oct 30 2019

The Zombie Center for Consumer Freedom is back. Its target? Plant-based meat.

Just in time for Halloween, the zombie is back.

I can hardly believe that the deeply discredited Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF)is on the attack again with another one of its snarky full-page ads in the New York Times (Monday, October 28).

The Center is infamous for secrecy about who pays for such things.

In this case, it’s easy to guess that the meat industry must behind it.  The most likely candidate is the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) on the basis of its already aggressive campaign against plant-based meat alternatives (see below).

If beef producers are hiring the Center for Consumer Freedom, you know that their industry is in real trouble.

If they are employing the CCF, they deserve to be in trouble.

NCBA Lobbying

CleanFoodFacts.com:  Does it exist?  I can’t find it online.

FoodNavigator-USA has a report of the press release for this, and the Center’s vague discussion of where the funding comes from.

Sep 30 2019

Eat as much meat as you like? Really?

The press release from the Annals of Internal Medicine arrived last week under embargo, sent to me by several reporters: “New guidelines: No need to reduce red or processed meat consumption for good health.”

The press announcement was accompanied by 5 review papers, a sixth with this recommendation, and an editorial.  These are posted on the website of their publisher, the American College of Physicians, implying this organization’s endorsement of this guideline.

Collectively, these papers challenge dietary advice to eat less processed meat and red meat on the grounds of inadequate science.

These papers argue:

  • Eliminating processed and red meat from the diet may reduce disease risks but the effects are small and evidence for them is of low quality and low certainty.
  • Omnivores are unwilling to eat less meat.
  • If you continue to think eating meat is bad for you in the face of this evidence, you are a victim of the “the less you know, the more you hold to your beliefs” syndrome.
  • You can ignore dietary guidelines (regardless of source) and continuing eating meat as you always have.

This is a good example of what I call nutritional nihilism, an approach that insists that because observational studies are based on self-reported information and necessarily flawed, their conclusions are unscientific and should be discounted.  Therefore, because we can’t do more rigorous studies, we should not advise the public about diets best for health or the environment.

I have several concerns about all this:

  • Yes, the effects are small but that is true of nutrition studies in general.  The small effects show benefits from eating less meat.  The authors could easily have interpreted their work as suggesting that eating less meat might be useful.  This is an example of interpretation bias.
  • The authors took a strictly science-based approach to a problem strongly affected by social, economic, and political factors and values.
  • The studies look at previous studies that compared people who eat meat to those who eat less. The authors excluded studies of vegetarians compared to meat-eaters.
  • They look at meat outside its context of calories.
  • The authors did not look at the totality of the evidence; they excluded laboratory and animal studies that can be more closely controlled.
  • They excluded studies of environmental impact, which has a significant bearing on human dietary practices (meat production adds more greenhouse gases than vegetable production).
  • The conclusions fall into the category of “everything you thought you knew about nutrition is wrong.”  This rarely happens.  Science usually works incrementally, not in one enormous reversal like this.

Do the authors really believe that all those other committees and commissions urging less meat were wrong and continue to be wrong?   Their strictly science-based approach seems unrealistic.

The papers come across to me as a concerted attack on dietary guidelines (national and international), on nutrition science in general, and on nutritional epidemiology in particular.

The meat industry and its supporters will love them.

Attacks on the quality of nutrition research have been coming from many sources lately: the food industry, of course, but also statisticians (John Ioannidis at Stanford is making a career of this), and some scientists (usually with ties to food companies).  The criticisms themselves are not new.

What is new is the vehemence and level of effort to discredit observational studies, particularly those based on self-reports of dietary intake.  Yes, nutritional epidemiology has flaws, but the methods have been useful in many instances, as argued convincingly by two of its leading practitioners.

In looking at nutrition research, I think it is essential to evaluate the totality of information available: laboratory, animal, human epidemiology and clinical studies—and to do this in the context of what people actually eat and the number of calories they consume, as well as adding in a hefty dose of common sense.

Common sense is what’s missing in these studies.  Do the authors really believe that:

  • Meat eaters are healthier than vegetarians?
  • Eating more meat is better for health?
  • Meat eaters are less obese and have less heart disease and cancer than those who eat less?

If not, the conclusions make no sense.

Most of the authors report no financial ties to the food industry.  I would love to know the back story about why they chose to do these studies and to interpret them in this way.

Reactions (I will be adding to this list as they come in)

Aug 28 2019

Eric Schlosser on the meat industry’s hypocrisy about immigrants

Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, explains in The Atlantic Why It’s Immigrants Who Pack Your Meat.

You really should read the whole thing.  It’s a powerful indictment.  Here are a few excerpts. 

  • The immigration raid last week at seven poultry plants in rural Mississippi was a perfect symbol of the Trump administration’s racism, lies, hypocrisy, and contempt for the poor. It was also a case study in how an industry with a long history of defying the law has managed to shift the blame and punishment onto workers.
  • What Trump has described as an immigrant “invasion” was actually a corporate recruitment drive for poor, vulnerable, undocumented, often desperate workers.
  • The immigrant workers arrested in Mississippi the other day were earning about $12.50 an hour. Adjusted for inflation, during the late 1970s, the wages of meatpacking workers in Iowa and Colorado were about $50 an hour.
  • Over the years, I’ve spent time with countless farmworkers and meatpacking workers who entered the United States without proper documentation. Almost all of them were hardworking and deeply religious. They had taken enormous risks and suffered great hardships on behalf of their families. Today workers like them are the bedrock of our food system. And they are now being scapegoated, hunted down, and terrorized at the direction of a president who inherited about $400 million from his father, watches television all day, and employs undocumented immigrants at his golf resorts.
Jul 26 2019

Weekend reading: Beef in American life

Joshua Specht.  Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America. Princeton University Press, 2019.

Image result for Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America

This is an enlightening, engrossing, and eminently readable cultural history of the beef industry in the United States, from the replacement of bison (and Native Americans) from the Great Plains to Big Meat to consumer concerns about the effects of beef on health and the environment.  What I so admire about this book is how it never loses sight of the big picture—the critical social and political forces that promoted the beef industry and made beef an icon of American society.

Specht summarizes big-picture aspects in his introduction:

The cattle-beef complex was the product of small debates, struggles, and fights over keeping one’s job, protecting a home, or making a dollar.  Ultimately, these were contests over what our food system should look like and how our society should be organized.  Low prices and sanitary meat at the expense of all else won out.  It was a system predicated on land dispossession, low wages, animal abuse, rancher impoverishment, and environmental degradation.  But it also democratized beef; hungry consumers could eat what they want3ed, and it tasted good.  Railroads, refrigeration, and capital made this system possible, but politics and struggle determined its contours (p.20).

Specht describes how the establishment of cattle ranching—e,g,, winning the West— meant the destruction of bison (and, therefore, Native American livelihoods).  Ranchers had to contend with the displaced and understandably angry Indians, of course, but also winter, drought, barbed wire, and theft.  Specht explains the political maneuvering that brought us to today’s highly consolidated, industrialized beef industry, controlled by just four companies, and producing most beef in CAFOs (controlled animal feeding operations) infamous for mistreatment of animals and environmental pollution.  How did this happen?

The refrigerator car and the managerial revolution explains how a small group of firms could dominate a world in which cattle were slaughtered in one place and eaten a continent or n ocean away, but the meatpackers’ victories over labor, the railroads, and local butchers explain how this state of affairs went from one that horrified people—pale grey meat in stuffy railcars—to one that was accepted as not only natural and inevitable, but laudable.  The key to the meatpackers’ success was that they would align their cause, centralized mass production of meat, with the interests of consumers (p. 178).

The interests of consumers?  Cheap meat.  As long as the present system keeps the price of meat affordable, it will be hard to mobilize public support for reforming the system.

This book is a welcome addition to the library of  books on the meaning of meat in America life, of which my favorites are Orville Schell’s Modern Meat (Random House, 1984) and Betty Fussell’s Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef (Harcourt, 2008).  Schell’s book predated Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, but covered much of the same territory.  Fussell’s is a cultural history.  Specht cites neither.  I commend them to his attention.

Earlier this year, the Lancet published two lengthy treatises arguing that the externalized costs of industrial meat production are unsustainable, and that halving current meat consumption must be a priority for improving human health and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.*  It’s too bad these reports came out too late to be included in Specht’s analysis.  I would love to hear his comments on them.

* The two Lancet reports from January 2019 are:

  • Willett W, Rockström J, Loken B, Springmann M, Lang T, Vermeulen S, et al. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet. 2019;393:447–92. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31788-4.
  • Swinburn BA, Kraak VI, Allender S, Atkins VJ, Baker PI, Bogard JR, et al. The Global syndemic of obesity, undernutrition, and climate change: The Lancet Commission report. Lancet. 2019;393:791–846. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736 (18)32822-8.
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May 23 2019

Global Meat News on this industry’s sustainability problem

The meat industry is under siege these days over issues of sustainability.  The major recommendation of the EAT-Lancet report is to cut consumption of red meat by half in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  This is a worry for the meat industry.

This collection of articles indicates how this industry is dealing with the sustainability issue—in some cases, with difficulty, denial, and fighting back.

GlobalMeatNews.com, an industry newsletter, has this Special Edition: Sustainability

In this special edition on sustainability, we look at what the major players in the international meat industry are doing to ensure the future of the sector. We start with quality control plans with Brazilian poultry as well as a massive investment in solar technology by Hormel Foods. We also look at Cargill’s work on reducing antibiotics and a new beef scheme in Ireland.

Mar 13 2019

FDA and USDA agree on how to regulate cell-based (“fake”?) meat

Last week, the USDA and FDA ended their turf battle and announced a joint framework for jointly regulating cell-based meat products.

Congress instructed them to do this in a statement related to the Appropriations Act:

Not later than 60 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Agriculture and the Commissioner of Food and Drugs shall enter into a formal agreement delineating the responsibilities of the two agencies for the regulation of cell-cultured food products derived from livestock and poultry. Such agreement shall be made public on the USDA and FDA websites within one day of the completion of the agreement.

These products, not yet on the market, are made from animal cells grown in tissue culture; no animals are killed in the process.

What to call these emerging products is a matter of some debate.  Proponents call them such things as in vitro, lab-based, vat-grown, or clean.

The meat industry wants them called artificial, synthetic, or fake.  It publishes a flier called “Fake Meat Facts.”

The proposed plan calls for the FDA to regulate the collection of animal cells, cell banks, and cell growth—the processes.  USDA will oversee production, as it does for live animals and poultry.

Much must be at stake.  The agencies’ framework is proactive; the products are not expected to be marketed for several years.

The meat industry is relieved that USDA is in charge.

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association President Jennifer Houston said, “The formal agreement announced today solidifies USDA’s lead oversight role in the production and labeling of lab-grown fake meat products.”

“This is what NCBA has been asking for, and it is what consumers deserve,” Houston said.

The market for these products is expected to be huge, but questions remain:

We will be hearing a lot more about these products as they head to market.

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