Industry-Sponsored Research Week

Author of study claiming no negative health impact from red meat failed to disclose industry funding

By David Schwartz
Published: January 14th, 2020

Guidelines published last fall in the prestigious Annals of Internal Medicine flew in the face prevailing scientific opinion, claiming there is no negative health impact from eating red or processed meat. After the guidelines were published, a number of nutrition and policy experts took issue with its methodology and claimed its authors, who have formed a group called NutriRECS, failed to disclose ties with AgriLife Research, an arm of Texas A&M University that is partially funded by the beef industry.

After initially defending the paper, on Dec. 31, the Annals issued a correction, saying that Bradley Johnston, the study’s lead author and until last year a professor of epidemiology at Dalhousie University, failed to disclose a key conflict of interest. AgriLife Research had provided Johnston and Dalhousie with $76,863 for a new meta-analysis on saturated fat. Though that money was not part of the study in question, the funding occurred within the 36-month reporting period required by the journal and before Johnston moved to a new job at Texas A&M.

The episode illustrates the care with which researchers and industry sponsors need to handle their relationships, given the scrutiny often attendant to industry-funded research results.

Asked about the Annals correction, AgriLife spokeswoman Holly Shive said that Johnston revised his disclosure statement for the correction, adding items that exceeded the journal’s disclosure requirements. She said that because AgriLife Research is a state agency affiliated with an academic institution, it did not need to be listed.

Shive maintains that Johnston’s updated statement exceeds all publication requirements “and makes clear he did not receive funding from any agricultural or food industry interests for his research on red and processed meat as well as saturated and polyunsaturated fats.” She said Johnson agreed that the earlier funding should have been revealed, but that it had no impact on the study.

“The funding was for work in the field of nutrition and the start of funding period was within the 36-month reporting period required by Annals, so it is a relationship that should be reported on the journal’s disclosure form,” Laine said. “When Dr. Johnston was asked about this grant, he agreed it should have been disclosed and agreed to make the change.”

It’s not the first time Johnson’s work has been called into question over industry funding, however. In December 2016, Johnston was the senior author on another Annals study insisting that warnings to cut sugar from the diet were based on weak evidence. That study was paid for by the International Life Sciences Institute, a food industry trade group with members such as McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. When the connection was revealed after publication, Johnston agreed it should have been disclosed, and the journal issued a correction.

“When you talk about conflicts of interest, appearance is everything,” said Marion Nestle, an author and former nutrition professor at New York University who has written extensively about the issue. “From the outside, it certainly looks like AgriLife is in the pocket of the meat industry and hired someone who has made a career out of undermining the dietary guidelines.”

Source: The Washington Post

Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week

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