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Sharp fires back at Harvard over criticism of beef study

Sharp fires back at Harvard over criticism of beef study

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In a letter to Harvard University’s president, Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp responded strongly to claims made by two professors at Harvard that food science scholarship done by experts at Texas A&M and elsewhere is unreliable and inaccurate due to the scholars’ connections to the beef industry.

Last fall, the Annals of Internal Medicine was set to publish a study that indicated — contrary to conventional wisdom and recent scholarship — that adults do not need to cut their red and processed meat intake. Days before the publication date, Annals editor-in-chief Christine Laine received about 2,000 emails in 30 minutes, with most messages containing the same content, all fiercely critical of the study.

On Jan. 15, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published online a lengthy article reporting on the controversy, which had been building for at least a few months before that. The fundamental questions, according to JAMA’s piece, are whether consumers should eat more or less meat — and whether, or how, funding of research impacts the legitimacy of its findings.

On Wednesday, Sharp sent a letter to Harvard president Lawrence Bacow that said Harvard nutrition experts Frank Hu and Walter Willett, along with other members of the nonprofit organization True Health Initiative (THI), “mischaracterized scientific research and falsely accused Texas A&M scientists of selling out to industry interests.” 

“Their actions, as described in a recent JAMA article , are unethical, distort the results of important scientific research, and, in our opinion, are false and harmful to Texas A&M University and its faculty,” Sharp wrote Wednesday. “These are serious matters that undermine the values espoused by your institution and must be corrected immediately.” 

In Annals, the panel — led by Bradley Johnston, an associate professor of nutrition at Texas A&M — suggests that adults “continue current unprocessed red meat consumption,” though the panel calls its recommendation “weak” and based on evidence of low certainty. Similarly, the panel suggests adults continue current processed meat consumption.

The authors did not find a “statistically significant” link between meat consumption and risk of cancer, diabetes or heart disease in more than 10 randomly controlled tests with nearly 55,000 participants. 

Johnston joined the Texas A&M AgriLife faculty on Dec. 1 as a tenured associate professor in the department of nutrition. He was at Dalhousie University at the time of the publication’s release.

On Dec. 31, Annals issued a correction that said Johnston had not initially indicated a grant from AgriLife Research “to fund investigator-driven research related to saturated and polyunsaturated fats.” Annals otherwise held firm on its decision to publish the findings, despite criticism from Willett, Hu and others.

Sharp also noted that Willett, at a fall academic conference, displayed a presentation slide that singled out Patrick Stover, who is both director of AgriLife Research as well as the dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at A&M, as part of a “disinformation triangle.” Stover is listed as a coauthor of the report. “I can assure you that Texas A&M’s research is driven by science. Period,” Sharp said.

In a statement provided to The Eagle on Thursday afternoon, Stover said: “Texas A&M AgriLife adheres to the highest standards of scientific rigor and research ethics. We believe we need better evidence for diet-related decision making — it’s time to hold nutrition and agriculture to the highest scientific standards; public health depends on it.”

In a letter to stakeholders, Stover said of AgriLife’s work: “We meet the needs of all Texans across the entire agriculture value chain. Our research and extension efforts support all agricultural production, including vegetable, meat, grain, nut and berry.”

Stover told The Washington Post on Oct. 23 that Texas A&M AgriLife “has done $170 million in research in 2019, $4.5 million in beef, half of that from federal sources like the USDA, the other half from industry groups. That’s a small part of our portfolio. We work very carefully to make sure there’s no undue influence from any commodity group on this report.”

The Eagle reached out to Harvard for comment and did not receive a reply; Harvard spokespersons told other news outlets that the university received Sharp’s letter but offered no further comment.

In his letter, Sharp wrote that Texas A&M has “no hard basis” to indicate that the accusations laid against A&M faculty members was endorsed by Harvard.

“We hope we can work together to resolve this problem,” he said. “Texas A&M asks that Harvard join us for a purely scientific approach to nutrition for the sake of public health and public trust and reject the politics and unethical actions of THI that have sought to discredit science and interfere in the scientific process.”

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