Red meat and conflict of interest: this time, it’s for real

As soon as it was published last fall, the “famous” series of scientific articles saying that red meat is not bad for health was the subject of accusations of conflict of interest. These were baseless allegations launched with surprising lightness, but there was something new on this file during the holiday season and this time it is more serious.
The e 31 December, the Annals of Internal Medicine (which were published papers that had made so talk last fall) issued a patch indicating the lead author Bradley Johnston (Dalhousie University at the time of the work, and now at Texas A&M University) had failed to report a research grant from Texas A&M AgriLife Research, a fund partially funded by the beef industry. The grant, which was about $ 75,000 according to the Washington Post report this week, was used to fund Johnston’s work on saturated and polyunsaturated fats – the former being more abundant in red meat than in other foods.

It should be made clear here that we are not talking about a retraction, where a magazine “unpublishes” and withdraws a study outright from its archives, but a simple addendum. So it’s not a dramatic turnaround, but it still adds an asterisk (one more, some would say) next to this study. I don’t think that changes much in the big picture – this whole story of red meat always seems to me to be a glass of water that we see half empty or half full, according to his preferences, as I wrote it a few weeks ago – but it’s worth mentioning this new asterisk, I think.

That said, I also want to emphasize that these allegations of conflict of interest are serious this time , but that they were not always so in this case, unfortunately. Last October, the New York Times published a “news” accusing Johnston of hiding “past ties to the beef industry”. However, the NYT had found nothing more than a research grant going back more than three years (so the transparency rules of the Annals of Internal Medicine had been respected) from an organization called International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI).

This is an organization very close to and funded by the food industry, and it is true that it counts the American beef giant Cargill among its donors, but that in itself was not particularly conclusive since Cargill is only one industrial donor among many others (most of which have nothing to do with the beef industry) and that ILSI also has poultry producers (including Cargill, d ‘elsewhere) who have no interest in seeing red meat be “cleared”, on the contrary.

In addition – and that cannot be invented – the ISLI subsidy had not been used for work on beef or saturated fat, but rather for an article on … sugar. This means that the NYT considered that a subsidy to study sugar dating back more than three years constituted a conflict of interest to study red meat. More pulled by the hair than that, the head tears off …

This time, the links to AgriLife seem to be something much more real – let’s give credit to the Washington Post , which was the first on this real story. However, all this shows that we should handle this type of accusation with much more circumspection than we do too often. Conflict of interest in science is a serious issue, not a public relations tool that we can use as we please to discredit researchers whose results are not our business.

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